Harper Adams University: Supply chain sustainability and net zero challenges analysed by research team for HSBC UK report

An analysis of how the UK’s supply chain can meet the challenges of hitting sustainability targets and working towards net zero has been developed for HSBC UK by a Harper Adams research team.

Three academics from the University’s Department of Food, Land and Agri-Business Management prepared the report, which examines the intricacies of the issues currently facing the UK’s supply chain when it comes to sustainability – and makes recommendations as to how improvements could be made.

The research by the team – Senior Lecturer Simon Thelwell, Dr Karim Farag, and Dr Richard Byrne – also draws upon two case studies – Shropshire-based family cheese business Belton Farm and multinational fresh prepared food provider Bakkavour.

At the heart of managing the change which is occurring in the industry, Dr Byrne believes, is communication – something which he believes is at the heart of the work being done both in the firms the report uses as case studies, and across the industry more generally.

He said: “Communication is key as the food industry and supply chain adapt and changes to the sustainability goal.

“Producers and processors are increasingly listening to consumer’s concerns, and to a large degree it’s a two-way process as change takes time.

“The industry is dealing with hugely complex supply chains but change is happening, and as processes are revisited, redesigned and plants redeveloped, we will see greater change and faster change and positive impacts.”

The report notes a series of challenges currently facing the UK’s food supply chain – including trade disruption, fluctuating energy prices, and the effects of climate change on the volatility of food production.

It also notes the impact of innovations in robotics, automation and technology – something which Dr Byrne believes can have a positive impact on the supply chain, if considered in a holistic manner.

He added: “Adopting technology is a big undertaking. The key is to look at the whole supply chain, not just individual elements, as changes to one part may have a negative impact further down the chain.

“So it’s very much about learning from each other and working together as product ranges change and technology is bought in.

“The adoption of tech can bring huge benefits, especially in reducing wastage and the market is maturing now, with some key tried and tested technology available – easily adopted and adapted to different sectors.”

UK firms looking to cut carbon emissions and carbon footprints are offered a range of ten key suggestions in the report, and while Dr Byrne stressed each industry across the sector may have different priorities, he notes: changes to water and energy may be a particular focus as the solutions they require can lead to positive – and measurable – changes.

He added: “Such activities can often be a demonstrable lever to encourage change in the supply chain – which requires more discussion, negotiation and dynamic interaction to ensure change is meaningful.”

Finally, Dr Byrne praised both case study businesses which the report drew upon.

He noted: “Both Bakkavor and Belton have demonstrated real commitment to change in two distinct food producing areas.

“Both have their own degree of complexity related to their scale of operation, and both have demonstrated that communication within the supply chain is essential to delivering change.

“That communication is between suppliers – and also listening to consumers.

“What was most impressive is that they view it as an on-going process, addressing sustainability as part of the business, not as an add-on.

“They are clearly demonstrating positive environmental change in both process change and management, and most importantly, communicating with the supply chain and end user.”

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