Sustainable supply chains

  • Lucy Prior

Sustainable supply chains

Some years ago, I was set the tough challenge of speaking in the place of Colin Flack, our Chairman, at the Manufacturing and Engineering Conference in the North East

Why was this such a challenge? I was used to speaking publicly, was comfortable with a manufacturing audience, I was at ‘home’ in the North; this was a home gig, surely?

This was the first time I ever had what felt like stage fright: Colin, if you have never seen him on stage, is a natural orator. I am not.

Added to that it was a silent conference (think silent disco, but more deadpan than dance tent) so a sense of surrealism pervaded my own natural style of presenting as I was unable to get the audience involved in anything other than two-way exchanges between me and whoever had the mic and a direct line into my ear canal.

Added to that, I had to channel my inner David Attenborough. My presentation was on the effect of reintroducing wolves into the Yellowstone National Park. To many this is now a well-known metaphor. Putting this into the context of the conference locale the wolves represented Hitachi, and the northeast and the UK-wide rail supply chain had become an area of outstanding but stagnated beauty that was on the verge of trophic cascade.

At the time of the conference Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe site was still being built, and our other metaphorical train-building wolves such as Stadler and CAF were yet to win the tenders that are now influencing our current supply chains. We had to prepare to flourish, to become sustainable, to become a burgeoning Yellowstone beaver population.

What is sustainability? 

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of sustainability is simply the ‘ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’. Look more closely at sustainability in relation to supply chain and the definition becomes more challenging: ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.’ (Investopedia)

In order to do this the business community needs to shift from the traditional buy/sell mentality. Peter Senge, the founding chair of the Society of Organizational Learning states that in order to create sustainability within the supply chain that: ‘First, you focus on the nature of the relationships. In most supply chains, ninety per cent of them are still transactional. If I’m a big manufacturer… I pressure my upstream suppliers to get their costs down. There’s very little trust and very little ability to innovate together. That must change.’ (Senge, Harvard Business Review Oct 2010)

Since I gave that presentation on the wolves in the park much has changed and in a way the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has perhaps taken on the role of the park ranger. By working closely with all manner of ‘wolves’ the department ensures that, as far as possible, new entrants into the UK rail market are provided with an ever-growing range of support and services.

The intentions of this are multiple but put simplistically this is to encourage and enable inward investors to source locally. This is not cloaked protectionism but is rather the intention to propagate a genuinely sustainable UK rail supply chain.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy

BEIS places sustainability at the heart of Industrial Strategy; it is part of every single sector consideration. Furthermore, the strategy seeks to nurture a closer relationship between Government and industry at large through a number of sector deals.

Sector deals are partnerships between the Government and industry on sector-specific issues which can create significant opportunities to boost productivity, employment, innovation and skills. Such partnerships do work: decade-long partnerships such as the Office for Life Sciences and more recent collaborations including tourism, creative industries, and have all demonstrated positive results.

The Government is committed to extending these successful partnerships to other parts of the economy and the rail sector is keen to achieve a Sector Deal in its own right. Through the Rail Supply Group (RSG) and The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) the Government has already engaged significantly with the supply chain through outreach events at trade fairs and workshops around the country, and through various social media campaigns. At the time of writing the RSG is seeking to engage further to ensure a valuable and informed understanding of rail’s ‘asks and offers’ is obtained.


With a focus on the concept of #OneRailway the RSG’s ambition is to digitally connect the nation through increased capacity and connectivity; to drive customer experience and to pioneer Intelligent Mobility. Above all the RSG seeks to deliver a sustainable rail sector at home and abroad.

Revisiting the metaphor, the UK rail supply chain has the potential to become an even richer ecosystem, and as the wolves evolve so does the food (supply) chain. Our Sector Deal submits imminently; hopefully it will encourage more wolves into the park.

The Rail Alliance

The Rail Alliance is the UK rail sector’s largest dedicated business to business networking organisation and it excels in and thrives upon bringing customers, suppliers and supply chain opportunities together. Its broad spectrum of membership extends way beyond pure rail and positions the Rail Alliance as the go-to membership organisation in the UK to nurture diversity, ingenuity and innovation across the rail sector and cross-sector.

Lucy Prior MBE is Membership Development and International Trade Director at the Rail Alliance and was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 2018 Birthday Honours list for services to rail exports

2018-06-26T14:29:06+00:00June 26th, 2018|July 2018, Magazine|