Ruth Spencer Talks Supply Chain Transparency, Sustainability and what Inspires her Work at Sourcemap

When we spoke I have to say I was very impressed by your diverse yet focused background. In addition to a degree in Environmental Economics from The University of Arizona and the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management you are just finishing at Columbia, you have been involved in and done some very interesting research projects of your own. Please tell us a bit about those projects. I kind of fell into sustainability as freshman at the U of A, thanks to a really remarkable professor I had named Dr. Michael Evans.  He gave me the opportunity to work in his lab when I was only 18.  The lab was using mass spectrometers to analyze the oxygen isotopic content of tree cores without the ring structures that usually allow scientists to measure seasons.  The lab worked with scientists from all over the world, including Australia and Norway, and the research I did with scientists from Norway eventually led to me applying and receiving a Fulbright scholarship to do more research involving tree rings in Norway.

It’s clear that, from early on, you were committed to doing meaningful work for the environment. What in you early life lead you in that direction? My dad has always been a pretty hard core environmentalist.  We grew food in our side yard in the suburbs, and he took my siblings and me on hikes all over Arizona growing up.  When I was a teenager, he took me to see “An Inconvenient Truth,” which really impacted my perception of what was important and worthwhile in life.    

After completing the climate change research in Norway, you took some time to reassess your path and ended up teaching algebra in Texas to high school students. How did your teaching experience help you define what you wanted to do long term? In Norway, I did a lot of independent scientific research, spending hours hiking alone on a mountaintop with a GPS to keep me company.  This was amazing, but when I thought about applying to a Ph.D. program to continue this type of work, I knew that my extroverted side would eventually revolt from such solitary work.  Teach for America represented an opportunity to follow another of my passions, education.  I was so fortunate to have really remarkable teachers growing up, and really felt a pull to try teaching because of my experiences as a student in a classroom.  Like seeing “An Inconvenient Truth,” teaching helped me to reframe my life priorities and see the world in a very new way.  Even though it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I loved teaching and it was difficult for me walk away after my two-year commitment.  In the end, I realized that despite the detour, I was still most passionate about sustainability. I still end up using my teacher training every day however, and am still in touch with some of my students. 

What led you to Sourcemap and what does your role as Sales and Marketing Manager entail? Sourcemap had been on my radar as a really interesting company doing innovative things in the sustainability world, so when I decided to organize a panel at Columbia University about sustainability in the fashion industry, I invited Sourcemap CEO Leonardo Bonanni.  He agreed to join and was so insightful and thought provoking that when I saw that Sourcemap was hiring, I applied.  At Sourcemap, I’m in charge of Sourcemap content and working with companies who want to use the software for sustainability and transparency.  This includes everything from demo calls, to training, configuration, etc.  Working at a startup is great because you get to see the entire process.      

Trying to get to the bottom of supply chains that have been in existence for many years is really like peeling an onion—it can be done, but it might make you cry.
— Ruth Spencer

Where did your interest in sustainable fashion come from? Quite simply, I really cared about the environment and I really liked clothes.  Sustainable fashion was a way to bridge these two passions that had always felt contradictory.  The more I researched sustainability in the fashion industry, the more I was shocked that this huge industry, with an enormous impact on the planet, had received so little attention.  In that way, it also felt like an opportunity to influence a new field, which is really exciting.   

You spoke about the dead end you kept running into as you explored sustainable fashion. Describe this and how does Sourcemap solve that problem? The dead end in fashion supply chains (and I later learned most supply chains), is that, for the most part, companies don’t know where their inputs (materials, components, etc.) come from.  When I started researching sustainable fashion, I thought that companies were hiding things from the public, but pretty quickly realized that it wasn’t that they were hiding things--they just didn’t know and there was no meaningful way for them to find out.  Sourcemap’s development had a very similar trajectory, when our CEO realized that supply chain maps were not very useful if they only had first tier suppliers.  Now, most of Sourcemap’s clients use the Request for Information (RFI) module of the software to discover their sub-suppliers first, before they begin mapping their supply chain.



Sourcemap works with a variety of industries but you are particularly interested in the fashion supply chain mapping projects. Why is the mapping of the fashion industry supply chain so important? Supply Chains in the fashion industry are particularly complex and difficult to penetrate. They also happen to conceal extensive environmental and human rights abuses. On the other side of the coin, providing transparency into the fashion industry presents an exciting opportunity because of the cultural power of clothing.  People feel connected to their clothes in a special way, which, in my option, will make the environmental impact of a transparent supply chain even more powerful.  

Can you give some examples of companies Sourcemap is working with? Our clients’ privacy is very important to us, so we only share information when we have been given permission.  One company who has agreed to share its experience is Eileen Fisher--they have been using Request for Information surveys to fulfill their 2020 goal of mapping their supply chain. Their commitment to making clothes in the most sustainable and ethical way possible is really inspiring, and it has been an amazing opportunity to work with them to make that ambitious vision a reality.  

There are endless barriers to trying to reverse engineer the supply chain but can you describe a few of those barriers for us? It’s important to remember that a lot of complexity was added to supply chains to lower the cost of making things.  An early source of complexity was moving the manufacturing of clothing overseas.  From there, second and third tier suppliers lower costs by using secret factories to avoid legal requirements, like minimum wages and safety measures.  And these are just two of the major reasons. Trying to get to the bottom of supply chains that have been in existence for many years is really like peeling an onion--it can be done, but it might make you cry. 

How does Sourcemap gather information? Do you encounter language or cultural barriers to gathering the information; how do you manage that? We use our Request for Information (RFI) modules to gather information from suppliers deeper in the supply chain. Surprisingly, we have not run into many issues with language or cultural barriers.  With Eileen Fisher, we took surveys that they had been sending out to suppliers and improved and digitized them.  This made the transition easy for suppliers, because the questions were familiar to them.     

How transparent can a company's supply chain be? What are the misconceptions about creating a 100% transparent supply chain? We laugh at Sourcemap a little bit about the idea of a 100% transparent supply chain.  If a company were truly 100% transparent, they would need to map the supply chain for everything they buy, from the computers they use in their offices, to the soap they use in the bathroom, even the fertilizer used on the cotton, etc.  That level of transparency is not reasonable or even useful at this point, but it does make you think about all of the inputs that it takes to run a company.  It’s important for companies to think about when they begin a supply chain mapping journey is the scope of their transparency endeavors.  Saying 100% transparent is less clear than saying something like map our supply chain from the farm to the consumer, for example.  Supply chain mapping is so new that these little things will work themselves out and in the end, what we really need is for more companies to at least attempt making these types of commitments.    

If a company wants to create a transparent supply chain from the beginning rather than reverse engineering an existing chain, how does that change the scope of the project? Does it allow for the use of any exciting tools or technology in the process? If a company starts building a sustainable supply chain from scratch, things become a lot easier. These companies don’t need Sourcemap to help uncover the supply chain and can instead focus on using Sourcemap to share the transparent supply chain they’ve designed.  Companies like this often end up using Sourcemap’s free tools, like the soon to be released Open Sourcemap.   



In your view what are the risks and benefits to further saturation of technology, access to the internet and social media in the supply chain? Ufffff… This is a big question and I am far from the best person to answer it.  I can say, that from my experience, technology has only helped to make supply chains more transparent and equitable.  Hopefully, this will continue into the future.   

Sourcemap has a very exciting new project Open Sourcemap. Can you tell us about that project? Open Sourcemap is a platform that will allow anyone to create a supply chain map for free and share it with the world.  It will start a new era of supply chain transparency by creating a social network of supply chains, and allowing suppliers to map their own supply chain.  Encouraging transparency has always been a part of Sourcemap’s soul, and we are excited to continue offering a free platform for companies who want to share their supply chains and individuals who want to learn about the supply chains of the products they buy.   

The sharing of information, technology and resources are not practices that have grown within the traditions of the fashion industry; if anything, it would be the reverse. Do you see this as a barrier to Open Sourcemap? How could the success of this project change the future landscape of the fashion industry? I agree that sharing information has not been a common thing in the fashion industry in the past, but it is becoming more common.  Open Sourcemap is simply a way for companies who are proud of their supply chains to share them with the world in an interactive and engaging way. Being transparent about your supply chain is a risk, and we want to help celebrate and promote companies who have taken this risk.

Right now, companies are using transparency and supply chain mapping to differentiate themselves.  As time passes, I believe that the holdout companies will feel compelled to map their supply chain as well.  Eventually, being transparent about your supply chain will become the norm, and being opaque and secretive will differentiate companies in a negative way.