The journey that resources take on their way to international markets is almost invariably described as a ‘supply chain’ – a metaphor that’s become so successful that we often forget it’s there. It invites us to imagine a string of companies, each linked seamlessly to the next, passing materials along as they’re extracted, processed and assembled on their way into our lives.
There is, of course, no actual chain linking companies together, but since then the image of a supply chain has shaped the way we picture our global economy and how products move through it. It’s become so entrenched in our thinking that we find it hard to describe the process in any other way. But when we lose sight of the role that these images play in our thoughts, our ideas and imaginations are left constrained, shaped by a metaphor we’ve forgotten is there.
The success of the supply chain metaphor is now holding us back, limiting our capacity to solve the problems plaguing the global economic system argues author Michael Gibb. Previously the coordinator of the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan, he investigated conflict finance for Global Witness, an international NGO. In these roles he documented human rights abuses, then graduated to trying to understand and disrupt the economic forces that sustain cycles of violence – first for a non-governmental organisation and as a journalist, then later on behalf of the United Nations (UN). He says like all good metaphors it has pared back complexity in order to expose something fundamental, but in this case, that complexity is us. As products and their journeys have taken centre-stage, we – the people who use and make them – are recast as mere stagehands, guided by economic forces that are ultimately beyond our control.
Powerful as it is, the supply chain metaphor draws our attention away from the larger forces that shape the problems we should be tackling. These include the sustainability of current consumption patterns; the absence of economic alternatives; weak regulatory oversight; scant protection for whistleblowers and journalists; the ease with which corporate ownership can be hidden and disguised; and the commercial pressures and incentives that likely drive those profiting from abuses or taking shortcuts. Our efforts to build stronger and more resilient supply chains will get us only so far. The thing we’re trying to perfect is only an image, and a partial one at that. Alternative visions can help us return these broader issues to the debate, while reminding us, for example, of the importance of engaging everyone affected by global supply chains in the discussion of how they should be organised.
Such limitations are inevitable with any metaphor. The danger, then, isn’t in the use of metaphor itself, but in forgetting that this is what we’re using. The solution, therefore, can’t be just a search for a better metaphor – but rather to remind ourselves that we’re using one, and to draw on many more when trying to capture something that might be beyond simple words.
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