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Increased awareness of the supply chain behind specific products is driving a growing demand from buyers of both commercial and consumer products for suppliers and manufacturers to offer more sophisticated approaches to their environmental policies. People don’t just want to know that the products they buy are made from recycled and recyclable raw material. They want to know where those materials came from, who made the products, what processes were used, where they were made and how they were transported. 

This is crystallising into a very sophisticated proposition which means people and firms not only want to buy the most sustainable products in terms of materials, processes and recyclability, but also buy them from suppliers who can demonstrate a sustainable approach in all aspects of their own business. 

Understanding the product supply chain

As specifiers of products ourselves, we have an important role to play in terms of not only understanding the nature of the products we offer clients but also the nature of the companies that produce them, including down their supply chain.  What we know is that the best suppliers tend to share important characteristics, not least in a desire to deliver products and services that exceed industry norms and the requirements of legislation. So their products will include a high level of recycled and recyclable materials. Their environmental policies will also tend to look at the impact of every aspect of the firm’s operations on all stakeholders, including local communities and the business’s own suppliers. They will have a progressive approach to dealing with waste and recycling.  They will also demonstrate a commitment to minimising the impact of the firm’s logistics on the environment by measures such as regular servicing of vehicles, buying from local suppliers wherever possible and organising deliveries efficiently. The ultimate aim is to deal with the readily apparent aspects of environmental performance but also understand the hidden elements, such as the amount of carbon embedded by the supply chain in a fit-out.

Ultimately, it is the benefits perceived by the end user that will drive the development of greater understanding of the supply chain. The ability to offer a true picture of the firm’s environmental impact will add credibility to marketing based on an environmental message aimed at customers and nowadays can play a key role in winning contracts with customers who expect their suppliers to be able to measure and keep track of key environmental indicators. More and more companies are now asked to provide product life-cycle information  and evidence of their carbon footprint, including the methods used to calculate it.

Supply chain management

Standards and legislation continues to play an important role but awareness of the complex issues involved is also growing thanks to reports which highlight best practice. Each year researchers Gartner’s produce a 'Supply Chain Top 25' report, now in its tenth year, which aims to raise awareness of supply chain management and how it impacts businesses and the wider world. The list includes some very familiar names. The top five-ranked organisations in 2015 included four that regularly make the list: Unilever, McDonald's, Amazon and Intel. The Gartner list makes it clear that corporate social responsibility is now a key consideration when it comes to managing the supply chain. The report says: ‘Another area we see supply chain leaders championing is CSR. Sometimes, doing the right thing for the environment also yields cost savings through the elimination of waste. By contrast, pursuing a higher standard for human rights at suppliers in less-stringent geographies, costs more, but is the right thing to do. In organizations where the head of supply chain speaks passionately and often on this topic, social responsibility has become a mantra for the entire organization. One benefit of this is that new and veteran supply chain employees have become excited by the level of impact they can have on their companies and the world at large.’

These are welcome developments. They challenge the cynicism that has grown up around the greenwashing of products and the mundane claims of firms to corporate social responsibility. In our own industry they help us to circumvent the homogeneity of standards that reduces client briefs to box ticking exercises and instead allows us to work in partnership to create sophisticated and informed narratives that describe a genuinely enlightened approach to supply chain management.  

By James Cornwell, Quality & Environmental Director

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