Joe Sarkis sits at his desk with two computer monitors in front of him. He's got one hand on the keyboard and one on the computer mouse, and is looking over his shoulder and smiling. He has gray hair and is wearing glasses.

Joseph Sarkis Finds Global Travels Inform His Research

Research focuses on sustainable supply chains and the circular economy

July 31, 2017

A summer full of world travel gave Foisie Business School professor Joseph Sarkis proof of how rapidly the global culture is changing and how important a global perspective is to his research into sustainable supply chains. “As I go along, the ideas meld further,” he says.

An expert in the greening of supply chains and the circular economy, Sarkis is using the time this summer to catch up on some research and reconnect with colleagues in London and Shanghai.

In May, he was a keynote speaker and planner of the Greening of Industry Network’sInternational Symposium on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Sustainable Supply Chains in the Post-Global Economy” at Royal Holloway, University of London. The three dozen or so senior scholars attending met for an open dialogue to discuss research in his area of specialty—sustainable supply chains.

Joseph Sarkis

After the symposium, Sarkis spent two weeks as a visiting scholar at the university, where he gave talks to PhD candidates about publishing in journals (he is the incoming editor-in-chief of IEEE's Engineering Management Review). He had one-on-one meetings with faculty members and senior researchers to discuss potential collaborations and current research.

Though greening supply chains is an ever-present issue, Sarkis says the London meeting especially focused on the geopolitical perspective of supply chains. “The geopolitical focus was on countries building borders and stopping immigration and limiting open trade,” he says. As refugee crisis events multiply and intensify and as nationalism continues to rise in some countries, the trade rules change.

Approaches of how to name or address a global economy that changes so rapidly intrigued Sarkis. “We received some criticism for calling the symposium ‘post-global’,” he says. “It was a Western view, because not every country is doing that. China is expanding globally.”

As attendees discussed the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, there was discussion about some goals that might be culturally insensitive, says Sarkis. “In other parts of the world, finding food and clean water might be more important,” he says. “The goals were developed with good intentions, but the application comes with unintended consequences and definitely some tradeoffs between goals.”

Sarkis says his keynote in London focused specifically on how technology’s advances change the way goods are produced and delivered and offered a look ahead to what could happen in the next 50 to 100 years. Microfactories that produce goods close to consumers reduce transportation costs, save energy, and offer a convenience in the supply chain that could change the ways goods are distributed. And as technology develops, products can be made in ways that aren’t possible now. Additive manufacturing produces less waste in the manufacturing cycle and can happen very close to sites that need the materials. “Things could be produced right next to where you need it—possibly even in your home,” he says. “That’s the ultimate microfactory.”

With such a rapidly changing environment, Sarkis says learning of the potential for what researchers might be able to develop could be a boon to consumers. Researching blockchain technology, he says there could come a day when consumers will be able to track a product along the entire length of its supply chain. “You could look up a fish you are going to buy,” he says, “and as it goes through the supply chain the information is added and verified, so you’ll see where the fish came from, who farmed or caught it, and the environmental impact it had along the way. As a consumer, if you want that information and have a phone, you could do that.”

An edited book published by Springer Nature is expected to result from the symposium.

“The global trade economy is only 300 or 400 years old. We are still figuring it out and we can improve it greatly; sustainability is for the real long run.” -Joseph Sarkis

In July, Sarkis met with longtime colleagues in China to collaborate on research at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian.

In Shanghai, Sarkis collaborated on a working paper about green supply chains that will be oriented toward practitioners and submitted to professional journals. Interest in a circular economy is also high in China and is a research priority for Sarkis. In a circular economy, industries work with each other to build companies that use the waste produced by one company for useful purposes by another company. The practice builds environmental savings and can have an enormous impact on trade.

The changing global environment was brought home to Sarkis this summer when he was caught in the net of politics. He was invited to speak in Iran, but his visa was declined at the last minute. “Some parts of the world are closed to me and that’s a shame for every reason,” he says. “It makes international collaboration very difficult; especially in regions of the world that can learn from us—and we from them.”

As the current global political climate reflects significant change, Sarkis says it may modify the way markets and industries operate for the good of the environment. “The majority of people want to do the right thing,” he says. “People have power and business will have pressure from customers. This is an opportunity to reinvigorate a civil society, since some governments may not be doing their job in the best interests of their society and the natural environment.”

When Sarkis talks about supply chains and changing manufacturing and production practices, he definitely takes a long view of what he calls a cyclical pattern. “The global trade economy is only 300 or 400 years old,” he says. “We are still figuring it out and we can improve it greatly; sustainability is for the real long run.”

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil