Global trade has grown at an unprecedented pace in the last two decades, while supply chains have also become increasingly long and complex. This, coupled with rising demand for natural resources, has major implications for the sustainability of development.

Making trade more sustainable requires delving into complex production-to-consumption systems (PCSs) that include a wide range of materials, activities, technologies, actors and institutions involved in producing, processing, transporting, and marketing commodities and their derivative products.

Consumers, governments, and businesses large and small engaged in international trade are increasingly being held responsible for developments along the supply chains that they benefit from; they are also increasingly willing to change their behaviours or policies to address the mounting sustainability challenges. They may aim not only to limit negative impacts but to realize the many benefits that can be achieved by changes to the global trade system, not least more secure supplies of goods and services. But knowing how to do this is not always easy.

Many new methods have appeared in recent years to help quantify and address the dispersed impacts of consumption and trade in international commodities. For example, ecological footprinting, which was virtually unknown 20 years ago, is now a familiar concept in both policy and consumer circles. Myriad certification and labelling schemes have been set up. And underpinning these developments, associations of producers, retailers, consumer organizations and others have come together to identify and demand more responsible practices, and to set ambitious targets for reducing impacts on natural systems.

Despite the advances, enormous gaps remain between research and action. A new generation of tools and approaches is needed to meet the challenges of defining and delivering a more sustainable global trade system, and finding ways to realize the sustainability commitments and ambitions of a range of actors in the private and public sectors.

The SEI Initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability (P2CS) takes a holistic and systems-based approach to furthering our understanding how PCSs work and identifying opportunities for a more sustainable trade system. This approach links two key strands of work: innovative modelling to improve the transparency of supply chains, including how producers and consumers are linked and the participation of different actors in determining supply chain dynamics; and multidisciplinary analysis of the governance of production, trade and consumption processes, and the roles and perspectives of different stakeholders. By bringing these together, we hope to provoke new thinking about both the dynamics of supply chains today and how they can be re-imagined for a more sustainable world.

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