IE: Tracking the Global Supply Chain

IE: Tracking the Global Supply Chain

“Just the fact that we’ve now harmonised all these bits and pieces across the landscape of environmental information, is an achievement in itself,”

– Professor Manfred Lenzen

When you buy a T-shirt do you know where it really comes from?

Industrial ecologist Professor Manfred Lenzen of The University of Sydney can tell you that it was made in China, from fabric woven in Bangladesh, from cotton grown in Uzbekistan, where the Aral Lake is shrinking because of water extractions.

The T-shirt’s Uzbekistan water footprint is just one of the many environmental and economic impacts of complex, global supply chains.

The University’s Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory (IE Lab), funded through Nectar, is helping to analyse these supply chain impacts, by harmonising data and developing new analysis tools.

“The job of the industrial ecologist is similar to a detective,” Professor Lenzen said.

“Suppose a consumer buys paint made in China. Do they know that the pigments are made in Tanzania from titanium from Madagascar, where the mining operations threaten lemurs.

“Or do mobile phone users know that its capacitors are made with tantalum from Kenya but mined in the Congo, where the mining activity fuels the civil war.”

Professor Lenzen said long and complex supply chains ripple across the globe through world economies and tracking the data is just too complex for a single research team.

“We had a research bottleneck,” Professor Lenzen said. “The individual research teams, who are now the core members of the IE Lab, did not have the resources to construct or update such the large databases.

“We had built one such database but we did not have the resources to keep pace with requests to update and expand it.”

Professor Lenzen met with colleagues around Australia to begin discussing how they might create a platform together for their common use. When Nectar issued the call for virtual laboratory proposals, they quickly realised it was exactly what they needed.

The IE Lab is currently in the final stages of user acceptance testing and will transition to its operational phase in early 2015.

“It’s terrific,” Professor Lenzen said. “Everyone has just a fraction of the work. We’ve created protocols for how the contributions from various sources should be standardised, and it works beautifully.

“Just the fact that we’ve now harmonised all these bits and pieces across the landscape of environmental information, is an achievement in itself.”

Partners in the project have included The University of Sydney, CSIRO, UNSW, The University of Queensland, Griffith University, Federation University Australia, The University of Melbourne and the University of South Australia.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is a key data provider and other data comes from the National Pollutant Inventory, the Bureau of Meteorology and from many other sources.

A number of researchers are already using the IE Lab, for example in studies on future biofuel industries for Australia, industrial symbiosis and material efficiency, and on waste metal flows.

The IE Lab is also collaborating with the Jolliet Lab at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, on modelling the health effects of Australian consumption.

Professor Lenzen said the IE Lab is designed to encourage use not only by the research sector but by other sectors as well. Having their work seen and cited more frequently provides incentive to academic users to open their data and corporate users such as consulting firms can integrate their own data sources with the IE Lab, while maintaining confidentiality.

Government bodies including the Productivity Commission have also expressed interest in the IE Lab, and international interest is growing rapidly throughout the industrial ecology community.

Due to the global nature of supply chains, the more data that is added, the more valuable the IE Lab becomes for users worldwide and with additional funding through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects scheme, Professor Lenzen’s team is now working on a global IE Lab.

“At the moment, the IE Lab contains Australian data,” he said. “So for example, you could assess the Australian economic and environmental impacts of, say, a second Sydney airport.

“But I want to create a global IE Lab, where you could know, for example, if you bought paper here, was any rainforest cut down in Indonesia.”

Professor Lenzen is currently liaising with builders of global international trade frameworks to assess whether their data streams can also run through collaborative environments such as the IE Lab.

“I know that internationally, industrial ecology research suffers from the same predicament that we were facing,” Professor Lenzen said. “It’s prohibitive for an individual institution to build these global databases. Collaboration will get us much, much further with much less cost and fewer human resources.

“We are overwhelmed with the interest in the IE Lab. We wouldn’t have expected it. Now we see that the Nectar Virtual Labs program has really brought our field forward. We’re stoked about the IE Lab. It’s been a great thing for our field and for bringing people together.”