Developing a theoretical framework of traceability for sustainability in the construction sector

With the rise of globalisation, supply chains have become longer and more fragmented, so nowadays products have long, complex journeys before they reach end consumers. As a result, customers have little awareness of where their products come from, and in what conditions they have been produced or distributed. Defined as the ability to follow the information related to a product, traceability is a key component for verifying and ensuring claims associated with production and transformation of the product as it moves along supply chain. Traceability can be applied to a range of types of information. In the context of sustainability, through verifying sustainability claims associated with products and their supply chains, traceability can influence customer choice and play an important role in providing an incentive for sustainable production and ethical business behaviour. The concept of traceability has been investigated in a few specific sectors (such as food, fashion, forestry), but studies have focused mainly on safety and quality within supply chains, rather than sustainability. In addition, academic scholars have tended to concentrate on the practical (operational) aspects of traceability, hence a conceptual understanding of the term is still lacking. The absence of a common theoretical framework for traceability means there is a lack of engagement in the concept, and consequently, no incentive for companies to engage with traceability programmes. Furthermore, the concept of traceability appears to be often confused with transparency and supply chain mapping, and this in turn leads to a limited understanding of the term, and its scope and application. The construction industry plays an important role in sustainable development through contributing to the economy by generating jobs, yet it also consumes significant amounts of raw materials and energy, which can result in significant environmental impact. Despite such scale and importance, material traceability is still at an emerging stage in the construction sector, which is arguably a missed opportunity. As such, this paper is part of an ongoing PhD study in which the construction industry is being considered as a novel application context for the concept of traceability. There is a generic need for a theoretical framework to better understand traceability, specifically for sustainability, and with respect of the ultimate aim to relate this theory to the construction industry. Hence, this paper will offer conceptual insights on traceability as a construct, through a comprehensive review of academic and standards-related literature. In doing so, the study defines the main concepts related to traceability, but importantly it does this under the umbrella of sustainability (ethics, social responsibility, transparency and responsible sourcing) and explains the relationships between them. By analysing traceability in both academic literature and standards/legal requirements and across multiple sectors, this paper aims to present a robust, yet pragmatic interpretation of traceability that can be related to the needs of the construction industry. That said, the theoretical grounding of the study means that the paper should have broader application value to other sectors and contexts.