Over the last few decades rapid advances in processes to collect, monitor, disclose and disseminate information have contributed towards the development of entirely new modes of sustainability governance for global commodity supply chains. However, there has been very little critical appraisal of the contribution made by different transparency initiatives to sustainability and the ways in which they can (and cannot) influence new governance arrangements.

Uploading freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches. Photo: migin / Getty.

This article seeks to strengthen the theoretical underpinning of research and action on supply chain transparency by addressing four questions: (1) What is meant by supply chain transparency? (2) What is the relevance of supply chain transparency to supply chain sustainability governance? (3) What is the current status of supply chain transparency and existing initiatives? and (4) How can transparency have a positive, transformative effect on the governance interventions that seek to strengthen sustainability outcomes?

The analysis focuses on examples from agricultural supply chains and the zero-deforestation agenda, but the paper also draws insights that are relevant to the transparency and sustainability of supply chains in general.

The authors assess the types of supply chain information that are needed to support improvements in sustainability governance, and illustrate a number of major shortfalls and systematic biases in existing information systems. They also offer 10 propositions that, taken together, serve to expose some of the potential pitfalls and undesirable outcomes that may result from (inevitably) limited or poorly designed transparency systems, while also offering guidance on ways in which greater transparency can make a more effective, lasting and positive contribution to sustainability.