Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 11.52.42Imagine the complex the life-cycle of a simple white t-shirt and the impact it has on the communities along its supply chain. From the farmers growing the cotton, the factory workers weaving the fabric, cutting and sowing of the end product, along with the transportation of materials at various stages , these processes have tremendous impact on the environment and the finite natural resources we depend on. Organizations have numerous opportunities to improve sustainable practices along the supply chain from product design, to procurement, logistics, sales and reverse logistics.

The apparel industry offers multiple examples of opportunities to improve overall practices, lower impact and grow as a market leader. Companies such as Reformation and Levi Strauss, among few, have proven that being sustainable is a good business and profit model. The apparel industry has not changed its procurement and manufacturing practices for decades, as exemplified by the deadly disaster at Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911, and more recently we’ve seen similar stories happening in developing nations . Buyers constantly push for lower costs, which continues to shift manufacturing to developing nations. Too often we hear the horror stories of factories burning down in Bangladesh or Pakistan, and the number of avoidable deaths.

Procurement strategies lie at the heart of international supply chains and offer an array of opportunities to improve on sustainability practices while creating value. Sustainable procurement practices are directly linked to stable supplier relations, efficiency, transparency and accountability. Companies that implement innovative sustainable procurement strategies see the immediate top and bottom line benefits; improved quality of goods and services procured, and increased trust. Below are 3 top procurement strategies that international organizations can depend on to build a more sustainable supply chain:

  1. Engage your suppliers & collaborate

Meet your suppliers, visit their suppliers and conduct performance assessments to identify high-risk and non-compliant suppliers. Ask to meet the producers at the bottom of the pyramid and work closely to ensure that value is being built throughout the supply chain. Organizations should want to know the total cost and impact of sold goods, by working closely with downstream supplies they can better measure these indicators.

Rapidly changing weather patterns, like the current El Nino , significantly affect international supply chains, particularly for food and apparel. Working closely with suppliers allows companies to formulate strategies to protect their production during these times. Furthermore, having the information of all that is required to deliver the end product also allows organizations to measure and mitigate their impact on local societies and the environment.

  1. Partner with NGOs & be creative

The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) supports programs that aim at reducing poverty through inclusive and equitable local development. A huge pillar of this outreach is the program’s ability to bridge the gap between the private and public sectors. The program works closely with international organizations to develop stable procurement programs in indigenous localities from where they can source goods directly from small producers. Organizations such as Oxfam or The Fairtrade Foundation work closely with members of developing communities around the world, understand how to position and operate in those environments, and can prove to be valuable partners when diversifying international supply chains. Companies should also take advantage of the data these NGOs have gathered from various locations to help guide them when forming supplier partnerships. Partnerships can stretch across the globe and aim to reach multiple communities in need, or stay local and manage the impact of programs in their own communities.

Some organizations have already seen the proven benefits from similar partnerships. Reformation is anScreen Shot 2015-07-29 at 15.52.48 apparel company headquartered in Los Angeles, California. The company proudly boasts on its website “We make killer clothes that don’t kill the environment” and they have the facility and data to back that up. But efforts do not stop there, they have recently launched a program through which they actually help people recycle their old, used and unwanted clothes by offering a free shipping service to their warehouse for such items. The items received are sorted to determine if they can be reused or recycled. If they determine that the materials are useful than that becomes part of their production.

  1. Take a 360 view of supply chain operations & use data

New data and integrated business management systems can help companies have better transparency in their supply chains. Competitive advantage lies in a company’s ability to break out of silo management styles and bring members from across the organization to supply chain task teams. For years marketing managers have made great use of customer related data, from structured sources such as POS systems, and other types of transactional information. Today, marketing departments are at the forefront of big-data management by blending traditional structured data with unstructured sources such as social media, email or videos.

Data use in supply chain is still at an infant stage, managers are still only making use of transactional data, often looking at inventory, order fulfillment and forecasted demand. Seldom do companies formulate a broad data strategy where all departments are utilizing the same knowledge to ensure that their goals are aligned with those of the overall organization.

Why is this important?

  1. The price of raw materials is volatile due to environmental degradation and increased competition. This volatility creates uncertainty in supply chains, which can have significant cost implications on inventory and operations.
  2. Studies show that 60% of consumers a company’s environmental record, sourcing and employment policies affect their purchasing decision. Building sustainable practices into supply chain strategy can help strengthen stakeholder relations.
  3. Supply chains are exposed to multiple risks and stronger supplier relations help companies develop strategies to mitigate risk and make forecasting projections that will meet changing customer demand.
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