The ins and outs of supply chain mapping

May 9, 2023

Supply chain mapping can help you mitigate risk, understand your carbon emissions, make better decisions, and streamline business processes.

Supply chain being mapped on a whiteboard on top of an image of string

The coronavirus pandemic brought the term “supply chain” into the public consciousness. Before 2020, many of us didn’t think about how—and from where—things got to us. But as the global supply chain broke down across everything from toilet paper to automotive microchips, companies started to examine the sustainability and resiliency of their supply chains.

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For a business to examine its supply chain, it must first map it. Supply chain mapping is essentially performing due diligence to understand where the raw materials come from that comprise your finished good. If you don’t produce a physical good, supply chain mapping extends to your critical vendors and service suppliers (e.g., for a digital product, this would be your tech stack, servers, web services, etc.). And when it comes to supply chain management, it’s all about how you create resiliency to minimize ongoing disruptions, risk, and, most recently, carbon emissions.  

Transparent tracking technologies, like blockchain and digital labels, trace materials in some industries and hold suppliers accountable for their sourcing practices. But we have yet to see the proliferation of that tech at scale, so it’s up to you to map your company’s supply chain in their absence.  

Supply chain mapping is an ongoing process that requires you to identify the potential risks and opportunities—including financial, quality, social, and environmental—at every production stage. While detailed maps take months to complete and could require you to involve many parts of your organization, for the sake of this post, we’ll focus on small, initial steps, like collecting and organizing your suppliers and gathering a manageable set of supplier data.   

TL;DR – Supply chain mapping 

Mapping your supply chain means tracing each product component or ingredient to its source. The goal: create a global map of your supply network.

Best practices for creating a supply chain map:

1. Make a list of all your suppliers. 
2. Organize their contact info so you can reach out to them later. 
3. Map your supplier list by where they fit into your product flow, spend, or how critical the supplier is to your business.  
Next: Assess them based on a single set of criteria. 

Benefits of mapping your supply chain 

Resiliency and risk management – The world is no stranger to supply chain disruptions, but what if they could be prevented? Mapping your entire supply chain can help you better understand lead times, highlight weak points, or if one supplier could hamstring your business. For example, if a critical supplier is located in an area known for natural disasters or at high climate risk, you might want to have a backup plan. 

Transparency – If you’re upfront with your customers about your business practices—like where you source material—it builds trust. And suppose you’re a supplier to other suppliers (i.e., a tier 2 supplier, or even tiers 3 and 4). In that case, there’s a strong chance your customers expect a certain level of supply chain transparency because it impacts their business. It wouldn’t look good if a t-shirt company worked with a supplier that used child labor to harvest its cotton. And if you can show you don’t, it gives you a competitive advantage.

Avoid legal issues – Modern slavery and nefarious labor practices can topple companies—so supply chain mapping can help you weed out bad actors. Plus, forthcoming legislation could require you to track your scope 3 emissions—which means requesting annual emissions from your suppliers. 

Sustainability – If you want a complete emissions picture, you need to account for the emissions your suppliers create on your behalf through all of the goods and services that contribute to your business (scope 3). 

How to develop your supply chain map 

Mapping your entire supply chain is the critical first step before doing a supply chain assessment. For complex supply chains, the mapping process can be time-consuming, so let’s break it into manageable steps: 

1. Create a basic map. Use sticky notes, a visual collaboration software, or a flow chart tool to create a high-level outline of your product flow from the source to the finished product. Then map your priority suppliers based on what’s important to you—where you spend the most money, the most critical materials to your product, etc. Include the type of operation (e.g., manufacturer, farmer, service provider) and the product or service they deliver.  

2. List must-have supplier information. Include company name, headquarters and manufacturing locations, contact information, products or services, annual spend, and supplier tier.  

3. Organize. Involve your sourcing or procurement team to help get and organize supplier information. If they don’t already collect the information you need, create a plan to close the gaps (e.g., gather from public sources, contact suppliers).  

4. Ask suppliers for additional contacts. Sourcing teams often list only an account manager, but you may need to speak with buyers or compliance representatives. Add new contacts to your supplier database.  

5. Identify your business priorities. You’ll likely need to consult internal teams, investors, and external stakeholders like customers and the community to help identify what’s truly material to your business. Is it fair labor and working conditions? Environmental stewardship? Cutting your use of conflict minerals? For example, if your supplier operates in a country at risk for corruption, human rights violations, or environmental degradation, you might want to put them on your priority list.  

6. Survey and assess your supply chain strategy. Once you’ve mapped your supply chain, you’ll want to assess each supplier’s risk to the criteria most material to your business. This requires annual surveys and data collection—more on that in our next post. 

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Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• Mapping your supply chain means tracing each product component or ingredient to its source.

• The goal is to understand and strengthen your supply network.