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The supply chain is an essential part of the sustainability jigsaw

Taken from an article by Jill Poet in To view the whole article click here

Larger organisations are increasingly accountable to shareholders and the government for their social and environmental impacts, but invariably the bulk of that impact lies outside internal practices and instead with the consumer and the supply chain. And so our most enlightened conglomerates are determined to find ways to influence the consumer in making more sustainable choices; and give greater consideration to their supply chain's sustainability credentials.

Influencing the supply chain, not just the first level but throughout the chain, is an essential part of the sustainability jigsaw. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is the responsibility of all organisations, both private and public sector, to ensure sustainability is embedded throughout the supply chain. Of course price and other considerations will invariably take priority, but it would be remiss not to take account of sustainable business practices. Unfortunately too many organisations make this aspect far too complicated and include inappropriate questions. Sustainability, in its full holistic sense, covers a multitude of different factors and a one-size fits all approach just does not work. What is needed, in addition to normal contract criteria, is just a couple of lines:

'We endeavour to ensure we work with organisations that operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Can you demonstrate how you fit this criteria?'

This open question should be accompanied by the opportunity for the potential supplier to upload relevant documentation to prove their responsible business credentials.

Unfortunately, apart from a few exceptions, most organisations are failing to influence a sector that is fundamental to the British economy - the SME sector - as procurement departments seem incapable of adopting a rigorous and yet pragmatic approach to the realities of operating a small business.

The SME sector, in the main, is too busy trying to survive and has not yet adopted as many sustainable business practices as perhaps it could. It is a sector that should be given at least as much consideration as consumers because, after all, these small business owners and managers are clearly also consumers. Encourage SMEs to adopt a different mind set and you potentially also influence a large percentage of the working population because these small businesses often have very close relations with their employees.

Let's take an example: four friends from university have set up Graphic Devils, a very progressive and successful graphic design company working from serviced offices. Their Environmental Policy might look something like this:

'We aim to reduce our environmental impact as much as possible. In particular we operate the following policies:

Wear warm clothing in winter to avoid excessive use of heating.

Switch off lights and computers and other equipment when not in use.

Avoid printing or print double-sided when possible.

Re-use where possible including scrap paper and use refillable ink cartridges;

Only boil the minimum amount of water when making hot drinks.

Walk, cycle or use public transport when attending meetings if possible.'

It sounds pretty basic doesn't it? But it is totally suitable for this small business. We call this the Appropriate Size Type Impact (ASTI) principle and our auditors are trained to use this approach when auditing businesses to The Responsible Business Standard.

And there lies the problem, because most pre qualification questionnaires (PPQ) and tender documents either completely lack any sustainability questions, or the questions are totally inappropriate for the size and type of the contract, and therefore the size and type of the business.

Would you really expect Graphic Devils to have ISO14001 or a biodiversity policy? No. Neither are appropriate. But that is exactly the sort of question a small company might be faced with, whereas our two sentences would give the company the opportunity to demonstrate their embedded social and environmental credentials.

Maybe Graphic Devils are actively involved with their local wildlife trust; or they've installed some planters in the communal courtyard and planted vegetables for everyone to share; or they do regular voluntary work with the local children's hospice.

So, in the instance given, Graphic Devils might not fit the PQQ or contract criteria, and yet in reality they really are a very socially and environmentally responsible business.

Perhaps we should start a campaign that all contracts, or at least all public sector contracts, stop asking for inappropriate policies and certifications but do include two little sentences - and ensure they take the submitted evidence in to account when awarding contracts:

We endeavour to ensure we work with organisations that operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Can you demonstrate how you fit this criteria?

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