How to protect your supply chain from climate change: 5 tips from Oxfam

By John Parnell

Unpredictability and uncertainty in weather patterns has been observed by farmers across the globe.

Throw in the increased incidence of extreme storm events, water scarcity and ever growing demand, and the scale of the challenge facing the agriculture industry is clear.

Many businesses, rely on their suppliers for cultivated commodities like soya, sesame oil, rubber, cotton, wool and many others.

With climate change creating new problems and inflating old ones, many suppliers, particularly smaller farmers, are facing big challenges that eventually hit businesses where it hurts.

Climate change has hit Lavender production in France © Mark Percy/Creative Commons

Oxfam has compiled an excellent paper looking at what the challenges facing coffee shop giant Starbucks, food and clothing chain Marks and Spencer and cosmetics retailer The Body Shop.

And their timing could not be better.

Increased heavy rainfall has encouraged fungi to ravage coffee plantations in Colombia. Devastating floods in Pakistan have contributed to fourfold increases in cotton prices, while shifting weather patterns have put the squeeze on sesame growers.

Here are their five tips for businesses to protect supply chains, give growers a better deal and protect the long-term viability of both their own business and all those who contribute to the product you pick up in your local shop or supermarket.

1. Adaptation is not a dirty word

In the west, relatively untouched by climate change effects so far, adaptation is considered by some to be a dirty word. A sign that you’ve given up trying to reduce your impact and are instead bracing yourself for the effects.

The effects are being keenly felt nearer the tropics where stormier conditions are interfering with traditional farming practices. Adaptation is not a dirty word however and businesses should be examining weak spots throughout their operations and at every level of management to meet the challenge on their own terms and not after the fact.

2. Talking shop

If you want to know how badly your producers are being hit, ask them. Obvious really.

Asking to what extent they are seeing changes, how it is impacting their output and what they need to overcome this is the first step in addressing any issues that are raised.

3. Less is more

A coffee shop might be able to buy its coffee from another region if its regular growers hit hard times, but the supplier cannot find new buyers quite so easily. This uncertainty can make farmers unwilling to invest in water saving technologies, new agricultural practices, or in the case of coffee growers in Colombia, to plant new fungus-resistant varieties of tree.

A stronger relationship between buyer and seller secures and steadies supply in the long term.

Part of this might be encouraging growers to diversify into other crops, even if this means you are now buying less of your chosen commodity from that particular seller. At least you can be assured that they will still be in business come next season’s harvest.

4. Support

Behind the supplier is a community. A weak community can bring down the grower. Supporting a supplier to provide staples as well as cash crops can secure local food supply. Educating and enabling sustainable farming practices directly impacts the strength of your supply as can local initiatives such as farming cooperatives.

Access to finance, be it through micro-insurance or opening up access to carbon finance, can also put growers on a more stable economic footing.

5. Use local knowledge

Existing groups such as cooperatives, local governments, research institutes can save time and improve the quality of decision making.

It also ensures that growers are not being dictated to by each and every buyer and can instead follow regional specific advice.

Oxfam also points to the lesson from climate mitigation efforts in the UK, where buyers asked suppliers to provide different reporting data creating layers of bureaucracy, much of which overlapped.

Oxfam’s Climate Change Risks and Supply Chain Responsibility report was written by Jodie Thorpe, an Oxfam policy advisor Shelly Fennell, an independent consultant.

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