From Food To Flowers: The Push For Supply Chain Transparency

Try to figure out exactly where fresh products come from in a grocery store. The stickers may say “Mexico” or “Colombia,” but those are big places, and labels like this don’t give much insight. Research online; the information isn’t there. Try with a few other products, and you’re likely to find the same thing.

Companies are not always forthcoming about where their products are sourced, and when the curtain is pulled back, scandals — including poor-quality products and unsafe working conditions — often come to light.

Now, consumers are holding companies accountable, and expect sustainable and quality products to be delivered to their homes. Simplified and transparent supply chains appeal to consumers, and the farm-to-table movement is taking off, delivering fresh food and flowers direct from farms.

This article will examine how product origins kept secret from customers can lead to dangerous working conditions and lower-quality products. Additionally, businesses that insist on supply chain transparency and encourage the farm-to-table movement will produce a better product in ethical working conditions.

The problem with opaque supply chains

The importance of supply chain transparency was not understood a decade ago. Companies were content to not ask questions regarding the origins of the items they sold, according to Steve New, an Associate Professor in Operations Management at the University of Oxford.

But now consumers do care about where their products come from, and knowing they were sourced ethically increases their value. This means products sourced unethically lose value.

Scandals arise each year involving companies that hide how their goods are produced. At the end of 2015, an Associated Press investigation revealed migrant workers and children were working as slaves in Thailand, peeling shrimp sourced out to global retailers and restaurants, including Walmart and Red Lobster. In 2014, women in Kenya made just over US$1 a day picking roses for British flower wholesaler Finlays.

Supply chains shrouded in secrecy harm workers, products and consumers.

A year earlier the infamous horse meat scandal took place in the U.K., in which horse meat was discovered in processed beef products being sold through several brands in supermarkets across Europe. This fraud in particular spotlighted the food industry’s problematic supply chain. Just one package of meat could be linked to multiple suppliers in Romania, The Netherlands, France and across Europe.

These cases prove supply chains shrouded in secrecy harm workers, products and consumers, and demonstrate the need for businesses to operate transparently.

Flowers and transparent supply chains

Let’s now look at the supply chain involving flowers. First, flowers are harvested at their point of origin, often in Colombia, which provided the U.S. with 65 percent of its fresh-cut flowers in 2013. Next, flowers are imported to the U.S. via Miami, and are then stored in large refrigeration units. The flowers are shipped in trucks to wholesalers, and from there are sent to flower shops.

With this process, the fastest flowers can reach consumers is six days. The long supply chain delivers flowers that are not at optimal freshness for consumers and detaches consumers from the farms where the flowers grow.

Smaller, more transparent supply chains benefit consumers, farmers and companies alike.

FedEx is pushing for transparency in the industry through a shorter supply chain. Its new flower delivery system allows florists in the U.S. and Canada to place orders directly to flower farms in Colombia, Ecuador and The Netherlands. With the international priority delivery, the flowers arrive fresh from the farms, directly to the florists, in 48 hours. This way, florists are able to build a relationship with the farms to ensure the flowers are coming from a place that takes care of its workers.

The flower industry has a reputation for permitting unsafe working conditions, but companies like The Elite Flower are pushing for transparency in the industry. The Miami-based importer owns the largest private flower farm in Colombia, and brings 700 million stems per year to the U.S. through a transparent, six-step supply chain.

The importer is open about where its products come from; in fact, that’s its selling point. The company’s website provides information on its ethical farming practices and runs a foundation to ensure the well-being of its farmers. The company also operates a school for the workers’ children, where upwards of 700 students attend.

The farm-to-table movement

As consumers become more preoccupied with where their products are sourced, the farm-to-table movement will grow. Organic products come directly from a farm to a consumer, and cuts the supply chain down to only two. The movement gives consumers the ability to feel a connection with the farmers, and creates trust that their goods are produced in a safe and ethical way.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has risen from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,476 in 2015. In Seattle’s King County, farmers’ markets gross an estimated $30 million annually, a significant section of the economy (this includes Pike Place Market, which is famous for being Starbucks’ first coffee shop location).

The farm-to-table movement isn’t just visible in farmers’ markets, however. Farmers are delivering fresh products by shipment, too. Companies like Bucky Box provide farmers with software to easily deliver fresh food products directly to customers.

It is clear that smaller, more transparent supply chains benefit consumers, farmers and companies alike. When a supply chain is transparent, farmers work in the public eye and receive fair wages, while working in safe conditions. Businesses have less product damaged in more direct supply chains and can brand their products as ethical, which increases their value. And finally, consumers benefit by receiving a fresher, healthier and more ethical product.