Rebuilding communities: Are shorter supply chains the answer?

Rebuilding communities: Are shorter supply chains the answer?

How do we rebuild local communities in a globalised world?

In the film All Is Lost a lone sailor’s yacht is badly damaged by a shipping container drifting in the ocean. The container’s contents of running shoes are spilling out into the sea.

The story sees the main character try desperately to repair the damage to his boat and find ways to survive. He is staring his own mortality in the face.

For me, this is a bit like where we all are right now in the world. The way we’ve been living is not sustainable, and the globalisation that led to the shipping container drifting in the ocean in the film is killing our planet and destroying many people’s lives.

Is that really a fair statement though?

And is going back to more local production and shorter, local supply chains, rather than global ones, really the answer?

During the coronavirus lockdowns most of us have been living much more local lives – and yet if you take a look around most people’s homes you’ll see products that have been manufactured all around the world. Indeed, every time we order from Amazon or a similar website, we often create demand for more globalised trade.

But is globalisation all bad?

It’s hard to do anything without internet or phone today, and yet our tech devices can only be manufactured for an ‘affordable’ price (a subjective word) if their manufacture is scaled globally.

Global business combined with technology enables many of us to work across borders, to work online, to freelance for companies on the other side of the planet – and to survive when traditional work disappears.

Travel and communication with – and access to – people, places, cultures and trade right across this amazing world gives us a window into other people’s lives and reflects back our own. It helps us look outward – to learn and see things (including ourselves) from new perspectives. It enables us to dip into a bigger pool of wisdom and insight and share ideas that can help us all. It can fire our imagination for better ways of living.

But who controls globalisation?

Is it us – continuing to buy from corporate giants? Is it the murky money markets where profits seem to be easily hidden and money directed to those with the most? Is it politicians with vested interests in certain industries?

Maybe it’s a mix of all of those – and more.

What’s very clear though is the cost of consumption and the cost of thinking that the planet’s natural resources are simply ours for the taking. When everything reduces to the lowest price for maximum sales, this exploitation and subsequent damage is huge – to the planet, to our environment and to ourselves as individuals.

So what do we do? And is there a middle ground?

Millions of people, for example in Asia, work in factories that produce the world’s consumer goods. What about their livelihoods?

If we turn our backs on globalisation, inequality will surely soar. And does turning inward, towards more local lives, risk even greater surges in destructive nationalism, protectionism, xenophobia and tribalism that we’re already seeing in some parts of the world?

We need to start with the problems – and there are many!

Poverty, inequity, hunger, fear, stress, loneliness, conflict… to mention just a few.

Do supply chains offer some answers here – at least to start with?

I’m not a supply chain expert, but let’s look at the food supply chain as an example:

Food that travels thousands of miles before it reaches a supermarket shelf may benefit the distributors in the supply chain, but it often devastates food supply for local people at its source – not to mention the damage to the planet in its production and transportation.

Shorter, local supply chains – without the middlemen – could offer hope in rebuilding communities.

For example, food grown locally for local people could see individual local growers invested in its production, greater accountability, easier tracing, greater health and wellbeing, learning from each other, a greater sense of fulfilment – and ultimately stronger and more resilient communities.

It could also help us ‘reconnect’ with seasonal local foods and give organic food a more prominent role. It’s a way for all parts of a community to be involved, e.g. schools, gardening clubs, etc.

This UK article from The Conversation highlights just how divorced many children have become from the source of their food. It mentions survey of 1,000 children that showed 41% of those children didn’t know that eggs came from chickens.

Having shorter supply chains that are more visible at a local level could also help put us back in touch with the essential building blocks of life – not only so we can see where things actually come from and what it takes to produce them, but so we start to appreciate the most important things in life again.

It could be a way for more people to contribute to the supply – and increase a feeling of local buy-in and responsibility. It could be a key to rebuilding communities.

Having shorter supply chains in some sectors, using local producers and with greater community involvement, can also help keep employment local.

The ultimate question

Food supply is perhaps an obvious example of how a shorter supply chain can help rebuild communities. But the same principle can be applied to other sectors too, such as clothing. It may not work for every sector, but if we start with the relatively simple things, and find ways to keep them affordable and beneficial at a local level, it is at least a start.

We need to shift power back to individuals who have stereotypically been at the ‘bottom’ of the supply chain and empower people to play meaningful roles in the welfare and survival of their own communities.

Ultimately, perhaps, we need to look back at the yacht and the shipping container example I started with:

Is our desire for the contents of the container greater than our desire to keep afloat?

2 Comments

  1. Sheila 1 year ago

    Excellent piece, very similar to
    a suggestion I made today, that we should look at which produce/products we routinely import from the EU and work out how we can produce them in our local communities.

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 1 year ago

      Thanks for your comment, Sheila. I think that might be very necessary if supply chains get cut at the end of 2020 – but, that aside, producing local food is a lovely idea. 🙂

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