Last week, I was invited to speak at the Campus Link Trade Show and Conference to share some insights into the role that effective communications can play in creating Sustainable Supply Chains. As Sustainable Supply Chain Management continues to gain ground, the number of emerging evaluation tools, tips, criteria, grading systems and issue-areas is enough to send procurement teams’ heads spinning. Too often this leads to organisations getting so caught up in the technicalities and questionnaires involved that they overlook the need to cooperate, collaborate and co-create solutions in order to develop Sustainable Supply Chains. Instead of focusing on common objectives, conversations can turn into confrontational shouting matches where suppliers and buyers argue over details of environment policy requirements or customers and NGOs attack organisations for the way they source their products. Ideally, procurement teams will learn to strike the right balance between technical evaluation tools and constructive conversations, so that business can continue to see the benefits of creating Sustainable Supply Chains.
The idea that companies share some degree of responsibility for the upstream impacts of supply chain is not new. Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Supply Chain ‘hot buttons’ like sweatshops, blood diamonds and dolphin safe tuna would have caught the attention of even the most casual of observers. Until recently, it seemed that that these concerns were reserved for only the biggest brands and the largest suppliers. Wal-Mart’s recent work to figure out how to improve the sustainability of its supply chain is a classic example of how negative attention has triggered big business to take responsibility for improving the sustainability of supply chains.
Nowadays, a growing number of smaller-scale suppliers and procurement departments are being pushed to start scratching their heads about Sustainable Supply Chains too. As the field of ‘Sustainable Supply Chain Management’ matures, pressure from customers, shareholders, Boards and stakeholders has moved beyond big business and started targeting small and medium size companies as well.
In most cases, the challenge is twofold: firstly, these smaller procurement departments are usually less resourced to handle the additional task of managing a Sustainable Supply Chain. Secondly, they are entering the Sustainable Supply Chain conversation at a point that is much more complex and advanced than it was when bigger brands began discussing the issue several years ago.
So, for anyone still in the early stages of considering the sustainability of your supply chain, or for anyone who feel like you’ve hit a plateau and need a bit of inspiration, here are a few hints on how communications can help you deliver a Sustainable Supply Chain:
- Figure out what “Sustainable” looks like to your organisation: “Sustainability” means different things to different organisations. Find out what the sustainability impacts and considerations are for your organisation by talking with players in your industry, or with academics or specialist research organisations. Try talking to NGOs who have approached you or your competitors in the past with concerns about your practices. You’ll either find an opportunity to show leadership by being a first-mover in this space, or you’ll save yourself time by learning from others’ experience.
- Think beyond questionnaires and evaluation criteria: Evaluation tools are helpful tools, but sustainability requires big-picture thinking, so don’t get so caught up in the questionnaires and evaluation tools that you lose sight of the overall objectives. Use regular and open conversations with industry members, stakeholders and customers to help get an outside perspective and use this insight to define your own path to sustainability. This puts you in a proactive position instead of a reactionary one.
- Start with ‘hot button’ issues: Chances are, you can’t deal with all of your Sustainable Supply Chain challenges at once. So, try starting with the ‘hot button’ topics most likely to draw negative attention or pose a reputational risk. Honest conversations with stakeholders and customers will help build a trusting relationship where you can listen to their concerns and in turn show them openly how you are trying to find a solution.
- Measure and Communicate: Almost as important as improving the sustainability of your supply chain is measuring your progress and being able effectively communicate your achievements. Make sure you are capturing the kind of information that allows you to tell the story of your continued efforts and progress. If your audiences can’t see all the work you’re doing, they’re more likely to kick up a fuss, which leaves you with the added task of managing a crisis on top of trying to figure out how to improve your sustainability impacts. Remember to consider audiences both internal and external to your organisation.
- Talk about successes and weakness: The key to successful stakeholder engagement is building trust. Remember that no one trusts a boaster, so make sure you share successes and challenges along the way.