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Sustainable Procurement: Reversing The Race To The Bottom

Don’t dismiss the importance of supply chain sustainability! Learn from the mistakes of others and count yourself out of the race to the bottom! 

A short-sighted focus on cutting costs and speeding products to market is resulting in a race to the bottom that will cost companies more in the long-run. Top performers in sustainable sourcing will emerge with stronger supply chains, higher margins, more trusted brands and happier customers.

Consumers are increasingly putting their money behind sustainability, with Nielsen reporting 66 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for products from companies they perceive as sustainable. This is forcing every industry to innovate in a way that makes transparency and sustainability permeate throughout the entire supply chain. Companies are often stuck in a race to the bottom, focusing on offering the lowest possible prices to compete with retail giants like Amazon and Walmart. Manufacturers who sell through these giants are also competing with each other, facing immense pressure from their customers to have the lowest price each week. Although price may seem like the best factor to emphasize, quality and sustainability considerations are often sacrificed in favor of cutting costs and speeding time to market. Even companies that have made sustainability promises often retreat after the initial pressure wears off due to perceived higher costs, but the long-term impact of irresponsible sourcing will impact their bottom line even more in the end. In fact, a recent BCG study found that gross margins were 4.8 percent higher for companies that were top performers in sustainable sourcing compared to those who were median performers.

In the long-run, participating in the race to the bottom is bad for business as it results in cheaply made, low-quality products and services that undermine the viability of the companies they are sourced from. This will all eventually be discovered by consumers and other stakeholders, and will open companies up to varying kinds of risk, including economic and financial, reputational and quality control consequences. Because these risks can impact a company’s bottom line, it is crucial to consider how sustainability can mitigate risk before it happens.

Unfortunately, hesitation and fear around competition (antitrust) laws are deterring businesses from working together to promote sustainability. A new report from the Fairtrade Foundation found that businesses are wary of working with rivals to improve the quality and security of their supply chain, but with fluctuating trade fees and climate change they have no choice but to collaborate. Instead of competing with peers to be fastest and cheapest to market, companies should be working together to promote sustainable procurement. When companies within an industry work together, it sends a much clearer signal to suppliers about the importance of responsible practices. With the right indicators and tools, those buying organizations can help suppliers advance in maturity and improve their practices – not only in sustainably issues but across all business operations. Companies should be working with other industry players – instead of against them – to ensure efficient and effective sustainable practices.

Learn from the mistakes of others

Nike, Asics and Puma saw the consequences a lack of sustainable and ethical practices could bring when more than 500 workers in four factories were hospitalised after fainting on the job. Outsourcing factory jobs to Cambodia may have saved the company some money on labor and wages, but unethical work conditions including long days and soaring temperatures canceled out any small benefit the retailers may have seen. The reputational and operational consequences turn out much worse than the small cost reduction initially intended. Improving ventilation and adding air conditioning, although good intentions, only put a band aid on the problem – these retailers and other companies should be working together to implement ethical and sustainable procurement practices as part of a long-term solution.

Geopolitical considerations

The turbulent political and trade climate in recent months is also challenging. Companies in almost every industry in the U.K. are facing a difficult choice between joining the race to the bottom to secure post-Brexit deals in terms of purchasing cheaper products from other countries and promoting high-quality, ethical and sustainable practices. Unfortunately, lower standards mean lower quality products and services, which will not just limit the emphasis placed on tackling issues like climate change and modern slavery, but also impact business revenues in the long run. NAFTA is having a similar effect on North American companies, making the consequences of the race to the bottom a universal concern. Instead of panicking about the effects of eminent trade deals, companies should be focused on working together to pursue sustainable procurement and mitigate risk before it happens.

Fortunately, many local and global governments are encouraging businesses to get on board and combat modern slavery, environmental sustainability and other risks in the supply chain. California recently signed the “Buy Clean California” act, which will clamp down on imported carbon emissions by creating rules for the procurement of infrastructure materials purchased with state funds. The U.K. just pledged $53 million to combat modern slavery with a focus on improving the apparel supply chain, joining the U.K. Modern Slavery Act in attempting to ensure business compliance. Australia may follow suit and introduce its own laws designed to root out forced labor and compensate potential victims.

At this point, we shouldn’t be thinking of it as “sustainability for sustainability’s sake,” but sustainability for risk mitigation and improved business operations. Technology is evolving to help companies better trace suppliers and other parties and improve transparency throughout the supply chain. Regulations around the world are banning or limiting unethical practices. The movement towards sustainability has changed in the last decade, placing the burden directly on companies to ensure responsible practices – both within their own operations and those of their partners. It may seem daunting to invest in sustainability while competitors are continuing to race to the bottom in pursuit of producing the cheapest products fastest, but companies that go above the standard will find it truly improves their bottom line and creates more value throughout their supply chain.

Pierre-Francois Thaler is co-founder and co-CEO of EcoVadis, a supplier rating company that helps organisations institute corporate social responsibility (CSR) and various sustainability programs. Pierre brings 15 years of experience in procurement and developing innovative sourcing solutions. Prior to starting EcoVadis, Pierre was CEO of B2Build SA, the first B2B marketplace for the European construction industry, and also served as a director of Ariba’s Procurement BPO business.