‘Shorter supply chains are more resilient and sustainable than the middleman economy’

Kathryn Judge teaches at Columbia Law School. Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das, she discusses the ‘middleman

economy ‘- and alternatives to global supply chains:

What is the core of your research?

My focus is on under-standing intermediation design or how the chains through which goods are made or money flows alter the nature of what gets built or what is invested. I also study the impacts of these processes on people and the environment and research how much consumers or investors even get to know about those impacts.

How do you define today’s ‘middleman economy’ as discussed in ‘Direct’, your new book?

An important distinction I make is between middlemen and the middleman economy – middlemen are key connectors who can help overcome information and logistical challenges that can impede the flow of goods or money. The middleman economy is a recent phenomenon, manifested in outsized middlemen, coupled with very long supply chains. Think of online retail giants – this economy seems to bring us short-term efficiencies but it often introduces sources of fragility and undermines accountability.

How does this economy make consumers, as you write, ‘oblivious to its impacts’?

Think of the scale of a Walmart – their demand for incredible volumes of goods can make it seem efficient to change production from some locations to a disaggregated process across many continents, generating hugely complex supply chains. That can come with opacity – consumers become focused on what they’re paying and getting and they don’t see the processes involving labor

and the environment in other parts of the world. They become dulled to those aspects – but that is the consciousness we need to revive in our consumption decision-making.

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Why do you say the middleman economy isn’t environmentally sustainable?

The process of parcelling out what diverse locations should grow can cause environmental differentials. Many consumers in Europe and the US are shifting to reforestation now – but their consumption patterns are driving deforestation in less developed economies. With huge supply chains, these impacts are easy to miss and hard to regulate. Poor environmental impacts show within the US too. My grandparents came from farming communities in the mid-West which had small farms with lower yields but agriculturalists could farm in ways that were mindful for their land. My cousin runs a family-held farm in Illinois now and faces a difficult trade-off between environmental health for her land, which she deeply cares for, versus commoditising enough to compete in a global middleman economy. This commoditisation is also causing much higher soil and air pollution, with more chemicals used in farming and adverse health impacts on farming communities. There are also many farmer bankruptcies in the

US because to keep up with these levels of production, farmers must buy very expensive inputs. These unsustainable methods generate a system that overlooks both people and places.

What labor practices do these global supply chains often veil from consumers?

These include child labor, forced labor and massively underpaid labor – some of the supposed gains from trade take advantage of the fact that middlemen chains exploit labor in ways that consumers cannot see. The US is still struggling with its own history of forced labor – now, we’re paying too little attention to forced labor practices worldwide, which can show up in everyday commodities like a bar of chocolate. The challenge is building shorter, more accountable supply chains.

You write of ‘connecting with the source’ in terms of people buying food directly from farmers – how practical is this?

The goal here is to understand the extremes of this hyper-mediated world and get a taste of how things might be different through connecting directly with producers, seeing the land and production processes. This is not a scalable solution but it is a helpful way to understand the relationships between people and the environment which underpin production. This can shape the decisions

people make, like paying a bit more for organic produce or fair trade practices. We need to reawaken our appreciation of the other beings involved in the goods we consume. This is one part of that journey.

How do you analyze the supply shortage of baby formula in the US?

This reflects our

on just a few powerful actors which has reduced resilience in the system. The fragility in global supply chains over the last year showed a focus on lowering prices, with a lack of focus on building resilience and ensuring a consistent supply of such essential commodities.

In a globalised world, can all commodity exchanges be localized though?

No but there are different ways to approach globalization and harness its transformative power. A diaspora spice company in the US is led by a woman who helps farmers figure out sustainable conditions for growing spices. Meanwhile, using social media, she educates American consumers about these farming practices and how to use well-cultivated fresh spice. So, this redistribution encourages mutual understanding, transparency and environmentally better agricultural practices – creative enterprises like this or ‘direct-to-consumer’ (DTC) projects can help build more transparent and trustworthy ecosystems.

Views expressed are personal

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