Start small to achieve big on sustainability

Victoria Kickham is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing, distribution and supply chain issues

Recent steps in the sustainability movement are aimed at taking smaller companies, even startups, along for the ride. Here are five key steps to getting started.

Sustainable procurement is gaining steam; the profile of corporate social responsibility issues is increasing and there’s a growing list of guidelines, standards and regulations that address economic and environmental issues. You might think that it’s purely the domain of the largest companies in the electronics supply channel. Think again.

Recent steps in the sustainability movement are aimed at taking smaller companies, even startups, along for the ride. The International Standards Organization’s new ISO 20400 sustainability standard is a case in point, as it seeks to create a common language for sustainable purchasing, placing the issue on a more level playing field. What’s more, industry experts emphasize that sustainable procurement is a journey with many steps along the way, some of which are easier to implement in small organizations.

Senior analyst with sustainability firm Eco Vadis, Peter Rau, commented: “Just because the overall challenge of addressing sustainability is large, doesn’t mean small companies can’t get started.”

Sustainable procurement essentially aims to minimize a company’s impact on the environment, while also addressing human rights and contributing positively to society and the economy. Implementing an SP program requires time and money, but there are simple steps companies can take to get started. What’s more, small companies, especially startups, have some key advantages when it comes to the initial hurdles of implementing SP.

Vision and strategy
The first step is developing a sustainable procurement mission statement, which requires top management support and buy-in. This is often easier in small organizations because there is less red tape. Company leaders should first identify relevant sustainability issues for their industry and then find opportunities to act on them. Product disposal and recycling are good examples.
Rau explained: “Identify what customers care about. This is critical and more do-able for small companies in terms of setting that vision and strategy.”

Organization and leadership
The next step is determining who will own the SP initiative. This is another issue that is easier to tackle on a small scale because it may fall to someone who already has a leadership role in the organization. Rau added: “Getting people’s input should be easier in a small business because everyone has a stake in the game.”

External communication
This involves establishing a supplier code of conduct and communicating it to partners. It’s a big task, but one that is manageable if done from the outset, making it easier for startups, especially, to incorporate as they build partnerships.

Rau said: “Make sure suppliers understand why sustainability is important for you as their customer. It can even be integrated into request for proposal documents or contracts with suppliers.”

Early efforts help build better programs from the customer side as well. Rau commented: “Especially with small companies that may have strong relationships with a few key customers, this can open the door to good partnerships and is another way to differentiate yourself from the pack.”

Monitoring and reporting
The final two steps, monitoring and reporting, are the most difficult aspects of implementing SP in small organizations because they require the largest investment in time and money. But as Rau explains, this should not preclude small firms from starting their SP journey. After all, a thoroughly sustainable supply chain is a goal for organizations of all sizes; it really is a journey with many steps and stages along the way.