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What stands between you and your sustainability goals?

“It’s so disappointing, we removed a third of the plastic from our containers and no one knows about it. Even our customers weren’t asking for it”.  

So my friend, responsible for sustainability, described his disappointment at a project he recently implemented at a branded and private label manufacturer. Unfortunately, his teams’ good work wasn’t communicated nor understood by the manufacturer’s internal departments.  

This meant that the sales teams lost a competitive edge because they didn’t tell retail customers about their leading-edge plastic reduction in this particular category. 

Retailer private label buyers didn’t ask their suppliers’ sales representatives for plastic reduction information which could have meant a reduction in cost, and they lost the opportunity to promote the new information on their private labels. 

This was a missed opportunity for both the manufacturer and the retailer.

Losers on both sides were: 

  • Communications - who missed having a credible story for social media,
  • Marketing - who missed having good copy to advertise; and
  • Employees - who were unaware of their organisation's positive contribution to an issue of huge public significance - plastic.

Does this sound familiar to you?

As someone responsible for sustainability in a manufacturer, a retailer or brand you know that this is an understandable, though not isolated, episode in the consumer goods industry.

It indicates that sustainability is not yet seen as daily business – whether that is an operation like the one where my friend works (proactive communication) or that of a retailer (private label tendering process which doesn’t include the requirements).     

It can feel like sustainability is yet another topic to add to the long list of things buyers are tasked with demanding from their suppliers. So when you are responsible for supply chain sustainability which includes dozens of different issues and products, you might overload your buying counterpart and find it disheartening when faced with “oh no, not you again”! 

But with the ever-increasing public awareness of sustainability and the demand for consumer goods companies to step up their game, prioritising demands and engaging buyers and suppliers has never been more critical. We are facing enormous labour and environmental challenges and companies are racing to publicise their commitments to halt carbon emissions – 90% of which are in supply chains. At the same time, commercial teams are under pressure to manage costs as inflation skyrockets.  

Therefore sustainability must become integrated into the daily business. When your strategy is understood by your internal business teams and your external stakeholders, like suppliers, it becomes “just the way we do responsible business”.  

I liken it to food safety 20 years ago.

It took time for buyers to understand (and be convinced of) what was needed and for suppliers to gear up to certification and communicate progress. While not all aspects of sustainability are covered by certification, a similar approach of; aligning the strategy internally, establishing a policy, setting targets and timelines, implementing it into the business processes and engaging suppliers, is doable.  

When your strategy is clear, and you know what issues and products to focus on you can be clear about what you ask of your suppliers. The supplier understands what you are asking and provides the correct data.  

For example: you focus on sourcing sustainable soy because soy is one of your main raw materials and because destroying rainforests to grow soy is a critical environmental issue. You ask your suppliers where they source their soy and if they have certification for sustainable soy. You might then be specific about what certification you accept and set a timescale for achieving it, while tracking and reporting progress in the percentage of sustainable soy you are reaching.  

Data is crucial and it’s also important to keep track of the ‘hidden stories’ - those initiatives which are difficult to assign data points to or where they are waiting for measurement, but do give a good indication of where your supplier is in their sustainability journey.  

It’s vitally important not to greenwash but to be honest about the progress.  

For example, your potato fries supplier is building a biogas plant to process waste that can’t be transformed into a consumer food product. It will take a year to finish. Meanwhile it is a great story which illustrates commitment to a circular economy and can be posted on your regular channels - showing how your suppliers reduce waste and carbon emissions. Once the plant is operational, metrics on waste diverted from landfill and energy produced can be logged and you now know the impact the plant has.  

Nothing happens overnight so a long-term sustainability plan with achievable milestones is crucial to keep up engagement. Targets must be reviewed regularly, and suppliers communicated with to understand their progress, which becomes part of your progress.  

Imagine being able to proactively communicate the great work your suppliers do, giving them the exposure and more business opportunities, both sets of employees a satisfaction in their work and a great reason for customers to buy your product.  

In S4RB’s Simplifying Sustainability webinar, we show how you can: 

  • Get started on sustainability,  
  • Collect relevant data  quickly and whilst minimizing the burden on your team; and
  • Engage your suppliers to deliver the results you both need

The webinar will give you confidence knowing how to engage your suppliers and to implement those sustainability initiatives that will truly make an impact on your supply chain.  

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Sarah Blanchard

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