How Supply Chains Impact the Environment and Human Health

The “supply chain” of a product encompasses multiple steps from raw materials to a finished product on the shelf. 

Throughout each of these steps, the pollution of chemical and solid waste negatively impacts our environment.

This article will explain what supply chain pollution is and how it affects our environment and human health.

What is Supply Chain Pollution?

Supply chains are the networks and processes involved in creating and distributing products, and supply chain pollution is the environmental degradation that comes as a result of these processes.

The multi-level processes of supply chains allow industries to:

  • Harvest resources
  • Refine raw materials
  • Manufacture products
  • Sell products
  • Distribute products to buyers

How Does Supply Chain Pollution Occur?

Throughout every step of supply chain processes, pollution can occur in the forms of resource consumption, chemical waste, and solid waste.

Resource Harvest

All of our products require raw materials, such as ore, timber, cotton, and oils, and the harvest and consumption of these raw materials can have devastating consequences on the environment, including:

  • Habitat loss from timber consumption
  • Emissions from oil extraction
  • Emissions and chemical waste from mining
  • Loss of freshwater for ore and oil extraction, and timber and cotton production

Many of these materials, including timber and cotton, are renewable and can be restored through sustainable practices. Others, like ore and oils, are limited resources that will eventually run out. Humanity currently consumes an average of 66 billion tons of natural resources annually, and that number is projected to more than double by 2050.

Renewable resources can also have severe impacts on the environment when not managed properly. Palm oil consumption and timber are both renewable resources that play major roles in environmental degradation. Clearing biomass for the harvest of these resources can result in extreme greenhouse gas emissions and loss of critical habitat, and are often harvested in countries that do not have sustainable policies in place to protect natural environments.

Water is another common resource used in resource harvest, with 1.9 trillion liters of water used by the fashion industry annually, largely for cotton production. In addition, water is used in oil and ore extraction as a means to efficiently extract these materials. These processes often result in water contaminated with chemical toxins.

Read more: How Industrial Pollution Affects Global Waters

Refining Raw Materials

After raw materials are harvested, they have to be refined into usable materials that are later used to create final products.

  • Oils are refined into plastics and fuels
  • Timber is converted into paper pulp and usable planks
  • Metal ores are smelted into usable metals for electronics

Refining these materials often requires intensive refinement and conversion practices that result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions and chemical waste. In 2018, oil refineries alone resulted in 1.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, with projections predicting an increase to 16.3 gigatons annually by 2030 (Tianyang et al. 2021).

Read more: How Industry Affects Global Air Quality

In addition, refinement techniques are imperfect, and often result in high amounts of byproduct waste and unused materials. In countries with proper waste disposal facilities, these materials are sent to landfills where they degrade over time and decompose into methane that can be used as energy sources.

Approximately 50% of timber refinement is wasted as unused logs, trimmings, stumps, and branches, with those unused byproducts disposed of in landfills or incinerated.

In countries without proper waste facilities, including many developing African and Asian countries where these resource refinements take place, byproducts are left in informal dumping grounds where they pollute the lands and water as chemical and solid waste, or incinerated and converted to airborne toxins.

Manufacturing Final Products

Similar to the refinement processes, manufacturing final products can result in extreme solid and chemical waste, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet, second only to oil refinement. The production of textiles and clothes most frequently occurs in countries with minimal environmental policies, resulting in major pollution, including:

  • Toxins from chemical dyes leaking into soils and waters
  • Scrap fabrics and imperfect products disposed of in landfills or incinerated
  • Synthetic materials and microfibers polluting oceans and waterways

Synthetic materials are a major contributor to water pollution, and most frequently come from textile manufacturing. The polyesters that make up approximately 72% of clothing break down in the manufacturing process and throughout the life of the material, and result in microfibers polluting waterways. It can take centuries for these microfibers to degrade, and can result in major waterway pollution and dangers to fish and other species that mistake them for food.

Read more: How Industry Affects Global Water 

Selling and Distributing Products

The final steps of the supply chain process focus on distributing products to buyers across the world. In most cases, products are harvested, refined, and manufactured in developing countries where labor is substantially less expensive, and the final products are shipped to more affluent countries for distribution.

Shipping large amounts of products across the world results in major emissions and fuel consumption. On average, greenhouse gas emissions from shipping account for over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. This number is expected to steadily increase as global consumption increases.

How Does Supply Chain Pollution Impact Human Health?

The extreme pollution that occurs as a result of complex supply chains affects not only the environment, but human health as well in the forms of:

  • Water consumption and pollution
  • Habitat degradation
  • Airborne toxins and greenhouse gas emissions

Water Consumption and Pollution

Many processes in supply chains require the use of freshwater, either from growing plants and trees to be harvested as raw materials, or in extraction processes for oil and metals. Industry currently accounts for 19% of all water usage on the planet. The majority of this is dedicated to agricultural purposes, both for growing food as well as manufacturing resources (i.e. cotton, timber).

This extreme water consumption can result in water deserts, where the majority of freshwater is dedicated to industry instead of people. In 2020, 6% of the world’s population lacked access to clean drinking water, due largely to industrial water consumption.

In addition to water consumption, industrial supply chains drastically reduce the availability of clean drinking water through pollution. Improper and illegal disposal of waste and byproducts irreparably pollute waterways through:

  • Chemical waste and heavy metals
  • Microfibers from synthetic clothing
  • Solid waste

Developed countries often have far more advanced environmental protection policies in place than in developing countries. In many cases, industries will transport their chemical and solid waste to developing countries for inexpensive disposal instead of paying for treatment and storage in their own countries. This leads to disproportionate pollution in developing nations that already lack modern wastewater treatment facilities.

Habitat Degradation

Habitat degradation is a significant consequence of resource consumption. Timber is a major commodity across industries and supply chains, and forests are cut down at increasingly fast rates across the planet. This leads to a substantial loss of habitat for wildlife, and in turn contributes to the growing number of endangered species and loss of biodiversity. Reports indicate that approximately 80% of wildlife species inhabit forests (Pimentel et al., 1992), and so the growing rate of deforestation poses a major threat to global biodiversity. This can potentially lead to devastating cascades of ecosystem destruction that dangerously restricts food and water sources for peoples across the world.

In addition to losses in biodiversity, deforestation also leads to major setbacks in climate change. Burning and cutting trees results in substantial greenhouse gas releases, and without healthy functioning forest systems, less carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.

While the destruction of natural habitat is often an essential part of development and human expansion, it can also pose a risk to human health. The loss of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems can lead to losses of critical species that maintain stability in ecological communities. In addition, healthy ecosystems like forests and wetlands naturally filter air and water and provide clean resources for humanity. Wetlands can naturally filter up to 96% of phosphates and nitrates in water (Dordio et al., 2008), but are significantly reduced in global coverage due to habitat degradation for industrial purposes.

Airborne Toxins and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Pollution from manufacturing and refinement processes accounts for a significant portion of airborne toxins. Communities that are within close vicinity to these processes are at high risk for contracting diseases and medical conditions relating to toxins, including:

  • Cancers
  • Asthma
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease

Air pollution is the leading pollutant worldwide, and leads to a growing number of health concerns every year. Air pollutants are well controlled in most developed countries, including the United States, through environmental policies and air filtration systems in factories. However, in developing countries and countries that lack substantial environmental policies, these still pose extreme risks to human health. In Asia, where air pollution is a significant effect of industrial processes, approximately 30% of premature deaths are a direct result of poor air quality.

Read more: How Industrial Pollution Affects Global Air Quality

Industries also account for the highest emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide. Major greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, build up in the atmosphere and cause climate change. Major effects of climate change on human health include:

  • Rising oceans that destroy coastal communities
  • Increasing extremity of hurricanes and floods
  • Increased frequency of temperature extremes
  • Decreased food security

Read more: Industrial Contributions to Climate Change

Ethical and Sustainable Supply Chains

While industries worldwide contribute to environmental and human health degradations, there is an increasing trend for sustainable and ethical supply chains. These sustainability practices take place at every step in the supply chain network, from sustainably harvested resources and materials, to sustainable distribution practices. Sustainable resource usage includes:

  • Avoidance of oils and plastics
  • Sustainable tree harvesting
  • Avoidance of synthetic materials in textiles
  • Usage of recycled materials

By using sustainably harvested resources and avoiding synthetic materials, supply chain pollution can be significantly mitigated from the first step. This results in less waste, emissions, and habitat degradation, as well as easier sustainability practices in other steps in the supply chain.

Sustainable practices in supply chain networks include:

  • Manufacturing final products with fewer synthetic materials
  • Clean waste disposal methods
  • Distributing products locally to avoid emissions from transportation
  • Opting for transportation services that adhere to the Low Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS) program

A growing number of companies take part in life-cycle assessment, in which they fully inspect the practices of their supply chains and commit to sustainable supply networks. This can be a challenging shift in industrial practices, as many of the countries that perform resource extraction and harvesting lack consistent environmental policies. Waste disposal methods are also cheaper when done unsustainably, which can lead to a cascade of price increases that then result in higher costs of the final products.

Ensuring that our products come from sustainable supply chains can also be a difficult task for consumers. A growing number of companies make their sustainability efforts transparent to their consumers, allowing them to see where their products come from and how they are produced.

Ethical and sustainable supply chains exist and are growing in popularity, and rely on consumers that support these practices and commitments. By purchasing goods from sustainably committed industries, consumers can have a say over how supply chain pollution affects the environment and human health.

Read more: How Consumerism Drives Industrial Pollution

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