John Carroll Building a Socially Responsible Supply Chain Management Program for Post-COVID Ohio

Senior Sofia DiCillo can tell you a before-and-after-the-pandemic story familiar to all 60 soon-to-be graduates of John Carroll University’s Supply Chain Management program, one of the longest standing in Ohio.

The Importance of Supply Chain Management During the Pandemic

“Before the pandemic,” says DiCillo, a double major in Supply Chain Management and Marketing, “I would mention supply chain, and people would say something like, “can you explain what that means?”  Now, when I mention supply chain people say “oh, way to go, great time to major in that!” 

Maybe no issue outside of vaccines has dominated the conversation during the past 18-24 months as much as global supply chain bottlenecks. In a country like the United States, where consumer spending comprises 70% of all GDP, half-full store shelves and longer-than-normal wait times for durable goods (from pickup trucks to refrigerators) have drawn attention to an aspect of the economy once barely seen by the average consumer.

The drama played out with container ships stalled in the cue at ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, and labor shortages (everything from truck drivers to data analysts), threatening every link along the chain.

“Americans suddenly realized that their favorite brands — Nike, GM, Lego, Ikea —  don’t actually make much of their products in house anymore,” said Sebastian Brockhaus, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management in the Department of Management, Marketing, and Supply Chain in the Boler College of Business.

Supply Chain Management through the Lens of Jesuit Business Values

Brockhaus and his Boler College of Business Supply Chain students examine supply chain issues through the lens of Jesuit business values. Beyond the manufacturer’s or customer’s point of view, John Carroll students analyze data on compliance, and worker safety and well-being throughout the developing world.

DiCillo points to a case involving IKEA and what the industry calls “breach of promise” allegations involving child labor and a contract rug maker. “Professor Brockhaus persistently challenges our thinking in class,” she says. “He asks us to think critically about moral issues that can surface in supply chain management. The IKEA case stood out because it involved moral and financial issues on both the supply chain purchasing side as well as the marketing perspective.”

Where Social Responsibility and Supply Chain Management Intersect

“My research looks at industry codes of conduct (CoC), and how adherence to those codes and norms have shifted over time,” Brockhaus says.  “Our analysis of corporate codes of conduct reveals that companies have become more aware – even acutely aware – of the need to address CSR issues.”

“They want to be seen as socially responsible,” he continues. “They also know that in today’s social-media world customers increasingly hold them accountable for what happens upstream in their supply chain. Our primary research question evaluates not just how companies are responding to mounting CSR pressures as they evolve their CoC, but more importantly, the motivations behind the evolution.”

A good example is California-based Levi Strauss, a $5 billion global apparel brand. Whereas apparel companies have historically not accepted responsibility for worker conditions beyond their direct control (Tier I suppliers), Levi Strauss has gone public with a “going beyond compliance” campaign that holds the company accountable for worker safety and wages deep into the supply chain (Tier II and Tier III suppliers).

At best, 90 percent of apparel brands hint at the need for Tier II and Tier III compliance, but often look the other way on enforcement and insulate themselves from any direct responsibility, according to Brockhaus. He adds that Levi Strauss is making a calculated investment, aware that developing compliance deeper into their supply chain gives them a measure of predictability, not to mention consumer approval and good will.

In his research results, Brockhaus concludes: “We find that codes of conduct have shown a tendency of making the lowest acceptable common denominator the established norm rather than setting aspirational goals. On the bright side, we see a shift from simply penalizing suppliers for misconduct to developing companies in countries of origin to be able to achieve compliance and beyond. Importantly, this opens up the market for firms to pursue competitive advantages via superior social and ecological standards.” 

He’s currently directing three John Carroll University honors students on thesis projects that will update the CoC data for 2020 and 2021 and take a closer look at compliance with those codes. The project is not limited to Boler students but also involves a student who majors in Psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences – highlighting the strength of John Carroll to collaborate across academic disciplines.

“We’re seeing the issue of social responsibility and supply chain bottlenecks converging,” Brockhaus says. “Now, more than ever, companies want to avoid a situation where there is documented misconduct. Given all the underlying supply chain challenges, it’s not a time that companies want to be forced to find new suppliers because that can take months even under the best of conditions.”

John Carroll University’s Boler College of Business offers a Supply Chain Management degree program. This degree will prepare you to rethink and re-engineer business processes in a variety of settings, types and sizes.  Learn more about the Supply Chain Management degree.