Inspired supply chain strategies driving sustainability forward

It’s easy to think about sustainable business in big, broad terms.  With such a huge need for new technologies and business models that lower our collective environmental footprint while creating new economic opportunities for the world’s citizens, it’s tempting to see this as a matter of building the Next Big Thing when there are often solutions much closer at hand.

One such solution can be found in the City of Cleveland, where a consortium of local partners is helping to generate new jobs and wealth in six low-income neighborhoods through an effort known as the Evergreen Cooperatives.  Consisting of three individual cooperative businesses (all green, employee-owned, and for-profit), and led by an umbrella corporation that provides structural guidance and manages a separate revolving loan fund, the Evergreen Cooperatives are a bottom-up approach to community empowerment and economic development.  Although the businesses themselves are owned by the workers, thus retaining more wealth within the neighborhoods where they are located, the cooperatives also have the support of many large institutions including the nationally-known Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, the City of Cleveland Department of Economic Development, and University Hospitals, a leading regional healthcare center.

Along with other supporters of the project, these partners contributed essential start-up money and technical expertise to help the cooperatives get off the ground.  But where rubber really meets road is in the way that these big local institutions have used their purchasing power to support the co-ops now that they’re up and running.  The three cooperative businesses include a laundry company, solar panel installer, and hydroponic greenhouse.  Although each company must also have many additional customers in order to remain viable, the hospitals and university are a major source of business.  As the Evergreen website states:

The intent behind establishing ECC is to create a new kind of “anchor institution” in Cleveland – an ongoing and sustainable vehicle that will partner with the City’s major anchors (such as hospitals and universities) to assist them in conducting their business activities in ways that will benefit Cleveland’s residents and neighborhoods.

While it’s important to note that something like the Evergreen Cooperatives doesn’t get started without a lot of time and dedicated support from a multitude of local partners, their initial success points to the massive untapped sustainability potential in supply chain and procurement, particularly amongst large place-based institutions in every community.  Nationally, hospitals alone carry over $750 billion in combined annual purchasing power.  Surely that number is similar for colleges and universities.  How can these big entities work with strategic community partners to direct their operational spending in a way that creates economic opportunities and positive environmental impacts?

The Buy Local movement has really taken off in recent years, and resonates strongly with a lot of people.  But so far its been mostly focused on individual decision-making.  What would happen if more local and regional anchors followed the same lead as those in Cleveland?

The supply chain tends to exist out of sight and out of mind from most people who don’t deal with it directly.  For those who care about promoting green business and social entrepreneurship on a large scale, however, it’s a golden opportunity.  None of this will happen overnight.  But that shouldn’t stop every economic development agency, community development corporation, office of public engagement, and local government from pursuing it right now.