3 Ways Retailers Can Help Suppliers Tackle Sustainability

by | Mar 14, 2012

I recently wrote an article Seven Sustainability Trends to Watch in 2012, where I opined that retailers (not government, consumers, or even “business in general”) are the driving force behind sustainability this year.

I was therefore pleased to read the recently-released Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) 2012 Retail Sustainability Report. Based on interviews with representatives from 20 different retail companies and 30 corporate sustainability reports from that sector, the report is an intriguing snapshot of the current priorities, challenges, and opportunities the retail sector faces.

You can download the entire report for free from the RILA website, and I promise that it is chock full of goodies to keep you thinking for a long while. But before you do that, I wanted to expound on one prediction that the report makes about the growth of sustainability within the industry over the next 5-10 years:

RILA Prediction: The Drive to Manage Supply Chain Impacts Will Transform Retailer-Supplier Relationships

At Strategic Sustainability Consulting, we generally work with the suppliers, rather than the retailers. And I can say without a doubt that suppliers are paying attention to sustainability. They are hearing from virtually every retailer that they sell to, often multiple times per month. They are scrambling to gather data, establish goals, and meet new (and sometimes conflicting) requirements.

So, yes. I agree with the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) recent prediction that sustainability will transform the retailer-supplier relationship. But it remains to be seen whether that change is positive or negative for the parties involved. To increase the odds of everyone walking away happier and more sustainable, I offer these three suggestions for retailers. Accept these challenges, and your suppliers will not only thank you — they’ll help you achieve your own sustainability goals:

1: Coordinate your supplier questionnaire with other retailers in your sector.

If there is one thing that is driving your suppliers universally crazy, it’s the fact that each retailer has created its own sustainability questionnaire for suppliers. It is ridiculous that our clients are receiving upwards of a dozen different supplier sustainability questionnaires that they feel obliged to respond to. Each retailer has its own set of questions, its own interface for submitting answers to those questions, and its own methodology for ranking and assigning value to those answers.

It’s maddening. And a waste of time and resources. Rather than make your supplier devote the equivalent of two full-time employees to answering surveys, why not coordinate with your peers and lessen the burden on everyone?

2: Be clear about what’s coming next.

We all know that sustainability is a moving target. What you ask suppliers to do today is not necessarily what you will expect from them tomorrow. We get it. And we’re happy that you’re taking incremental steps. But for heaven’s sake, give us a heads up about the direction you’re charting. It takes time to get the proper systems in place, and your suppliers would appreciate a little notice. So if you are planning to stay focused on corporate-level greenhouse gas reporting, then tell us so. If you anticipate leaning more towards product-level greenhouse gas accounting, then that’s an important piece of information to share.

Remember, suppliers want to make you happy. Tell us what you want (and expect to want in the future) so that we can get busy making plans to meet those expectations.

3: Answer your email.

When you set up a supplier sustainability program, there are going to be questions. In fact, there are probably going to be a lot of questions. And you need to devote the internal resources to answering those questions when they come up. So please think through how you are going to communicate with suppliers struggling to respond to your sustainability demands. Compile a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) web page. Record a webinar that can be played on-demand later. Offer a demo of the questionnaire interface — how to log in, how to save your answers, the timeline for evaluation, and exactly how you will be using the data provided. Provide an email contact form. And then answer messages when they arrive in your inbox.

Seriously. Answer your emails.

Yes, it can be overwhelming. Yes, there are probably some stupid questions in the mix. (If you continue to get the same stupid questions, then maybe you should create a FAQ to deal with it before it ends up in your inbox!)

But when you tell suppliers to do something and then ignore their request for support, you are essentially asking them to guess what will satisfy you. And guessing isn’t going to make anyone happy. So just answer the emails, okay? (Whoever is on the receiving end of the Walmart packaging scorecard, I’m looking directly at you…)

Got another idea for how retailers can make it easier for suppliers to tackle sustainability? Leave it in the comments — and I promise to pass it on the next time I’m airing my grievances.

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter. This article was reprinted with permission from the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series blog.

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