Greenstone's Head of Client Services, David Wynn attended the annual Greenbiz Conference in Phoenix (17th-19th February 2015). In this blog series he reflects on some of the key trends from the event.
“Save our planet! It's the only one with coffee” was Jim Hanna at Starbuck’s closing quip at Greenbiz Forum 2015. As Director of Environmental Affairs for the coffee giant, his ‘one great idea’ pitch was scaling sustainable innovation. And with over 12,000 global stores that’s no easy challenge. The challenge of engaging with suppliers at scale is twofold. How do you engage suppliers on environmental issues? But even more challengingly, how do you engage suppliers on environmental issues that span interconnected and dependant supply chain processes?
La langue est essentielle
Yes, language is essential. You’re unlikely to speak to an English supplier in French but the sentiment of knowing your audience and communicating accordingly is key. Placing requirements on suppliers to act in a certain way, adhere to certain principles or provide data on their environmental impact is becoming more and more commonplace with buying organisations. As the trend grows, clarity on what’s needed and why is key to ensuring that robust data is sourced. Picking up from my last blog on the need for sustainability professionals to translate their environmental messages for different audiences, it’s key to frame conversations with suppliers using a language that they can relate to.
Carbon, carbon everywhere
Carbon is really useful. Obviously not from a climate change perspective; but from a communication perspective it serves as a useful lens (and unit) for the comparison of impacts. Whether you’re shipping cocoa, boiling a kettle or recycling a cup, the ability to calculate the associated carbon emissions is invaluable to be able to report holistically on the combined environmental impact of a company or country’s activities.
Carbon also allows us to benchmark and set targets on our impacts based on where the greatest reductions in emissions can be achieved. Reporting the carbon emissions of your own activities is relatively straightforward and should encompass the activities you have control over; but does talking to suppliers about carbon help or hinder the conversation? It can go both ways.
Talking the (relevant) talk
Engaging with suppliers on their environmental impact can help identify opportunities for supply chain efficiencies, resource waste reduction and the better management of raw materials. As a result, organisations that have engaged successfully with their suppliers have seen a decreased exposure to supply chain risks and an improved market reputation. Using language that suppliers can relate to ensures engagement with providing this robust data but also means that buyers are able to meaningfully communicate with suppliers on where efficiencies can be made.
Carbon can be a useful way to do this with mature suppliers but in reality, language that’s tailored and localised is going to provide greater understanding and engagement with suppliers. For example, a buyer may ask a supplier about their waste production so that they can understand the associated carbon emissions but tailoring the language they use with suppliers to emphasise resource efficiencies and cost savings is likely to prove more fruitful than discussing greenhouse gas emissions.
The wider context of supplier impacts
After a breath-taking hike up Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain, Day Two of Greenbiz Forum brought insight from WWF on the art and science of transforming supply chains. Their Supply Risk Analysis methodology is a framework for sustainable sourcing that covers broad environmental topics beyond just carbon. In WWF’s own words, the methodology: “makes it very clear, where businesses have the biggest environmental impact or potential impact… through their sourcing of commodities in specific areas.” Tools like this are an invaluable asset to organisations that are leading initiatives on sustainable supply chains and are able to identify material risks and opportunities both in and beyond their value chain.
In summary, as with broader sustainability conversations, communication and the lens we choose to view environmental impacts is at the heart of successful engagement with suppliers on sustainability. Tailoring the conversation to strengthen understanding and engagement is key and as organisations begin to see value from this, more are moving to strengthening real time relationships with their suppliers and drawing on tools to understand what the impacts mean for the planet. For organisations like Starbucks the supply chain challenge is truly global. Fairtrade estimate that 125 million people globally rely on coffee for their livelihoods. When you consider the global reliance on supply chains and the scale of collaboration that’s needed on sustainability, it puts supplier relationships at the centre of the conversation on climate change and fundamentally the solution.
With this in mind: “Save our planet! It’s the only one with suppliers… and coffee”