Green eggs: Big Data and sustainable sourcing

Nathan Pelletier
October 06, 2018
By Nathan Pelletier
The CALCD will be a public database to support sustainability measurement and reporting activities in the agri-food sector.
The CALCD will be a public database to support sustainability measurement and reporting activities in the agri-food sector. Photo: Fotolia by Adobe Stock

Growing interest in the concept and practice of sustainable sourcing is redefining relationships and expectations in the agri-food landscape. Sustainable sourcing, simply put, refers to procurement of goods or services subject to their meeting a specified set of socio-economic, animal welfare and environmental sustainability criteria.

Examples of well-established sustainable sourcing initiatives include: third-party certified ethical sourcing programs like Fairtrade (designed to ensure that small-holder farmers get a fair price for their products); multi-stakeholder platforms such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil; and in-house private sector activities like Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Program.

The phenomenon of sustainable sourcing reflects a broader trend in society towards accountability and transparency, as well as the rising expectation that businesses take a more active role in promoting positive outcomes that span people, planet and profit. This includes committing to measure, report and demonstrate progress with respect to clear sustainability goals.

For businesses, sustainable sourcing can serve multiple objectives. It can improve profitability by making better use of resources or capitalizing on sustainability marketing opportunities. It can aid them in managing brand reputation. And it can enhance public trust.

In a globally interconnected marketplace, sustainable sourcing presents obvious challenges. Material, energy and labour inputs to the production, processing and distribution of agri-food products along their value chains often span multiple countries and potentially impact on numerous stakeholders and ecosystems. For this reason, co-operation among value chain partners in producing and sharing information is essential to supporting effective and efficient sustainable sourcing. So, too, is the use of life cycle-based sustainability indicators that consider the potential benefits and impacts of products along the whole value chain.

Life cycle inventory databases can play a critical enabling role in data sharing and the calculation of life cycle-based indicators (e.g., carbon, land or water footprints) by providing value chain stakeholders with a common, quality-controlled repository for the information that they or their value chain partners may need in order to meet sustainable sourcing program requirements. When publicly available, such databases are also suitable for hosting data used for in-house sustainability initiatives in order to promote transparency, credibility and reproducibility.

A variety of public and commercial life cycle inventory databases have become available in recent years. These may be national or global in scope, and either general or focused on specific sectors. To date, only two limited Canadian life cycle inventory data resources have been developed. The first is the Canadian Raw Materials Database, which was created in 1998 to house inventory data for the aluminum, glass container, plastics, steel and wood products industries. The second is the Quebec Life Cycle Inventory Database. In general, however, life cycle inventory data to support sustainable sourcing activities in the Canadian agri-food sector are limited, and no common repository has been established.

In order to resolve this bottleneck, I’m working with a team of researchers at the UBC Food Systems PRISM Lab to develop the Canadian Agri-food Life Cycle Data Centre (CALDC). This will be a publicly available database to support sustainability measurement and reporting activities in the agri-food sector. We’re currently creating the architecture for this database, backed by an expert stakeholder advisory panel comprised of representatives from industry, government, academia and others.

Following construction and testing, we intend to begin populating the database in late 2018 with data sets that are currently available in the public domain. We’ll also simultaneously invite private companies, industry associations, consultants and other research groups to begin to use the database to host their data sets. This will allow participants to retain ownership and control over their data, periodically update data sets as required and ensure that the information that they make publicly available is maximally interoperable with data from similar platforms elsewhere.

This is database will represent a huge step forward in terms of making sustainable sourcing and sustainability marketing/communication more cost and time efficient, as well as more transparent and credible. I’m very excited to engage with food space leaders in moving this initiative forward.

Nathan Pelletier is Egg Farmers of Canada’s industrial research chair in sustainability, from the University of British Columbia – Okanagan.

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