From students to supply chains - what can we do to be more circular?

FROM STUDENTS TO SUPPLY CHAINS - WHAT CAN WE DO TO BE MORE CIRCULAR?

GUESTS FOR CHANGE WITH EDWIN KEH
PART 1

“My career development may be somewhat of a cautionary tale for young people,” shares Edwin Keh candidly. “Yet,” he continues, “The one guiding principle I have maintained is that I thought about ‘How can you be useful? How do you develop a useful career?’”

As the CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, Edwin has a wide and varied background. Having always been interested in the development of modern cities and communities, and how to make them more healthy and sustainable, he took up an internship opportunity with the United Nations - at a refugee camp. “I was with a very resource-rich organization, and I was watching people die unnecessarily because resources were not being deployed effectively to save lives,” he shares. “And so I felt very frustrated with myself because I was not able to figure out how large, complex organizations work.”

“That sparked an interest in me to understand organizations and people - and how to do things more efficiently. So instead of going to get a degree in sociology, I went to business school to understand management. That started me on a fairly long career in various global supply chains just trying to figure out how things work and how things move, and how you can positively impact communities, and community development using commerce.” After that, in 2010 he decided it was time to start thinking about how to put that experience into systems, and he became a researcher.

And as someone who is passionate about systems, it comes as no surprise that Edwin is very methodical and systematic in his thought processes. He outlines that he sees our professional life in three phases. “We begin as students. At the beginning of our careers, we want to learn as much as we can. And then we become practitioners - because that is most useful. So you do as much as you can, and execute as much as you can, just so that what you do makes a difference and makes an impact. But then there's the third part of your career - in which you try to think as much as you can.”

He shares, “I see it happen where people make the mistake of doing what they're good at, but not doing what is most impactful.”

It is in this third phase that Edwin outlines that one is able to integrate the principles about how things work, reflect on past mistakes and experiences, and look into what can be done in different situations. He shares, “I see it happen where people make the mistake of doing what they're good at, but not doing what is most impactful.” And this, in Edwin’s opinion, is one of the most important things to be taken into consideration if one would like to make a positive impact and difference in the world.

“One of the things I like to do is to look at models that help us interpret reality or help us make sense of what we see. The idea there is that at any one point in time, when we look at what is going on, we can understand it,” shares Edwin.

Within today’s world of supply chains, he has outlined three that operate simultaneously: “You have a financial supply chain which involves who is making money, who's paying for things, where the assets are, and how things are flowing. In there, you look at the deployment of the financial resources. Then there is also a data supply chain or an information supply chain. This involves where things are, what is happening to them, and what state they are in within the supply chain. And then finally, there is a physical supply chain - which is how we take raw materials and turn them into products, how we take products and transport them and store them, and then distribute them. There is always some form of physical activity going on in that supply chain. So at any one time, there should be these concurrent supply chains that are going on as we look at any particular activity.”

When asked about how to harness the strength of these supply chains, Edwin outlines a combination of two perspectives - the free-market view, and one that is more humanistic: “We should not only look at how we benefit everybody who contributed in the supply chain, but we should also look at how these business activities help us - so that we have a better community, the environment becomes cleaner, and so that we don't deplete all these resources in the unsustainable manner that we have. All these things form part of a core business mandate.”

“One of the good things that came out of this pandemic that we are going through right now is that more and more consumers are making the connection between personal health and planetary health, understanding that it is just a continuum of the same thing."

He continues, “One of the good things that came out of this pandemic that we are going through right now is that more and more consumers are making the connection between personal health and planetary health, understanding that it is just a continuum of the same thing. Seeing that ‘I'm getting sick and the world is getting sick’ is just another way of looking at the condition that we're in right now. So, then you can begin to think about the connection. You understand that if you want to live in a healthy, sustainable environment at home, that means the planet has to be healthy, sustainable and clean.”

You understand that if you want to live in a healthy, sustainable environment at home, that means the planet has to be healthy, sustainable and clean.

This can be done in multiple ways. “It becomes the utility of how we make purchasing decisions. We can begin to question more - like becoming aware of how I feel when I buy something. ‘When I buy this, do I feel guilty? Do I know that I'm buying something that is polluting some country and making a group of workers miserable because I'm keeping them in poverty?’ Or, ‘Do I buy this and feel good? Do I know that, because of this type of material, because I'm purchasing from this brand, they behave in a responsible, sustainable manner? Am I actually part of the solution - for not only in what is happening to me and my family, but what is happening to me and my community and the world that we live in?’ So that creates the business case for all of us to behave a little bit differently.”

Am I actually part of the solution - for not only in what is happening to me and my family, but what is happening to me and my community and the world that we live in?

From this behavioural understanding of things, we explore the notion of circularity and supply chains even further in the second part of our discussion with Edwin Keh.

Images via Getty Images and Pexels.


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