What makes sustainability so difficult and complex?
Sustainability is unquestionably a huge topic, enveloping many interconnected challenges; it is multi-faceted, and often considered contentious. It is also too often communicated in a way which generates doubt or inertia, and the burden of finding solutions falls onto governments, scientists, and sustainability or procurement teams within businesses. They are expected to be the brains behind the development of a strategy, policy, and in turn, tangible results – all whilst operating in an world of ever-increasing volatility, complexity and uncertainty.
Brands and retailers need to adapt quickly to respond to changing consumer habits, investor expectations, and the potential impacts of climate change on global supply chains. There are more and more things which need to be considered in the approach to find solutions to environmental and social problems faced in the world today.
It is not surprising that it often becomes difficult for brands and retailers to know where to start. And limiting the number of people thinking about a topic as broad as sustainability on a day-to-day basis can only hinder progress towards making positive changes – this is why collaboration is so crucial, both internal and external to a business or organisation.
Where do you start ?
First of all, sustainability needs to be made simpler, accessible, and much more manageable – not just for sustainability professionals, but so it can be effectively communicated to a wide range of internal and external stakeholders. These include other internal teams and departments, senior management, and suppliers. This way, sustainability can be easily interpreted and better understood, fostering collaboration and enabling better informed decisions to be made.
The journey starts by focusing on what is really important to the business. This is where a materiality matrix (or assessment) comes in - the bedrock of any sustainability strategy. It is a tool which breaks down the individual environmental and social issues which sit under the umbrella of sustainability and enables brands and retailers to determine and clearly visualise their relative importance. These insights can then be used to guide strategy, purpose, communication, and culture.
It is quite simple; brands need to first identify and then determine which environmental and social issues matter most. From that list, brands can then decide what is most important to the brand’s success trajectory (say, over the next 5 years) and what is important to all its stakeholders.
Identifying your internal and external stakeholders is helpful before you begin this exercise to ensure no perspective is overlooked. Internally, this will include current (and future) employees, managers, and the management board. Externally, this includes customers (and potential customers), shareholders, government, society, partner organisations, trade associations, and more notably – suppliers.
After completing this exercise, brands are then ready to establish a strategy direction which can inform individual initiatives and project focal points. These projects and initiatives are what enables brands and retailers to set goals and commitments. And this is where collaborating with suppliers comes into play.
Accelerate towards your new goals with the help of suppliers
After determining a target or goal for an individual issue of material importance, be it environmental or social, one of the first set of stakeholders who need to be engaged is a brand’s suppliers. Brands and retailers have loud voices when it comes to affecting change, not just because of the amount of customers they can reach with their products, but the influence they have over manufacturers and suppliers. This is what makes supplier collaboration so powerful and its impact so great. In fact, supplier collaboration has been proven to be the most effective driver of sustainability performance.
Being able to communicate a vision with suppliers - made up of individual issue-specific goals - helps to prepare (or ready) suppliers to align their activity to those goals. This in turn enhances a brand’s understanding of their supply base. Suppliers need to understand what initiative or material issue requires their focus and what their role is in achieving the outlined goal.
Aligning suppliers behind your brand vision or individual project goal and telling them why their insight and expertise is important can engender a dedication to the initiative or cause. This sense of direction, purpose, and certainty makes it much easier for brands to make progress against targets, collect accurate data, increase accountability, and in turn, work towards achieving sustainability goals and increased supply chain transparency.
To better understand the issues that might affect your brand, download our whitepaper here.