Tracking the Global Supply Chain

Editor’s note: This case study is taken from

Author: Karen Mecoles

Nectar provides an online infrastructure that supports researchers to connect with colleagues, collaborate and share ideas and research outcomes.

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.



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