4 Tips for Evaluating Suppliers for Sustainability

by Rebecca Smith Hurd on April 14, 2011
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How and where you source products and services speaks volumes about your commitment to sustainability. Your choices can either reaffirm or undermine your efforts — and affect how customers perceive your small business. Taking time to assess your suppliers’ practices (to make sure they measure up to your standards) will help to ensure that any investments you’ve made to green your own operation truly pay off.

Here are a few tips for getting started.

  1. Ask about sustainability efforts. The next time you’re talking with an existing or potential supplier, perhaps visiting their site, ask a few pertinent questions. According to Anita Campbell of Small Business Trends, the obvious place to start is with the basics: Does your company have a sustainability program? What environmentally responsible practices do you follow? What is your product’s life cycle? If you get a blank stare or a verbal ‘Duh?’” Campbell says, “You’ll know the answer to your question.” Here’s hoping they have at least something to say — or at least value your business enough to want to learn more.
  2. Get commitments in writing. Develop a straightforward sustainability survey that’s based on your industry — and send a copy to each of your suppliers. You don’t need an outside consultant to do this. If Walmart can assess more than 60,000 suppliers (and create a sustainability index for every product it sells), then a small business should be able to handle six, or even 60, evaluations. Simply address the issues that are important to your business and its customers, such as recycling, energy conservation, carbon footprints, and community involvement. You can find lots of survey and checklist examples on the Web, including this fairly streamlined assessment tool available from the economic-development nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh.
  3. Set an example. Just as you’d like your suppliers to provide you with information about their practices, remember to share yours to them. Offer leadership and inspiration by sharing resources and success stories. Did your business pay less for utilities after switching to compact fluorescent bulbs and taking a new approach to the air-conditioning system? Cut back on travel expenses and carbon emissions by making your sales force more efficient? Win a lucrative new contract because the city endorses your eco-aware practices? Offer your suppliers tangible suggestions and advice whenever you can. Be transparent and real — and encourage them to follow suit.
  4. Keep an open, ongoing dialogue. Greening your supply chain is a continual process, and sustainability should be a recurring theme in business transactions. “View your suppliers as partners working with you to achieve joint success. If you see opportunities to improve practices, offer them as suggestions,” notes Campbell, who recommends sending out your questionnaire every year. “For instance, if you see an opportunity for your supplier’s packaging to become more ‘green’ for inventory that they deliver to you, then suggest it.” If they’re running a small business like yours, they’re bound to appreciate any advice, introductions, and ideas you have to offer.
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