Sustainability ONLY Exists In the Supply Chain

Furthermore, simply switching suppliers does not make you more sustainable no matter what you may think or what those overpriced third party ESG / Scope 3 reports may (or may not) say. Switching suppliers to a supplier approximated to be more sustainable is not increasing sustainability, because if you take someone else’s supplier, then they are just going to end up with yours. It may be a temporary net win for your company, but it’s a net loss for another company, and that doesn’t really help anyone as sustainability was not actually increased overall.

Sustainability only comes from net improvement. The reason it only comes from the supply chain is because the products you buy come from the supply chain. The energy you use comes from the supply chain. The water you use (and drink) comes from the supply chain. The services come from your partners (in the supply chain). The transport to you (and/or to your customers) is the supply chain. Everything comes from the supply chain. The only way you can increase your sustainability is to reduce the energy, water, and products you use and the travel you undertake. For most companies, this is a negligible part of the supply chain … sometimes so negligible it rounds to zero.

So how do you increase sustainability in your supply chain? You start by helping your suppliers be more sustainable, which, believe it or not, starts with you being a better buyer and a better partner. Sustainability requires investment, and when they are operating at slimmer margins than you, significantly smaller bank accounts than you, and a lot more uncertainty than you, it can be hard for them to invest in new technology or processes when they don’t even know if they can invest in next week’s payroll.

And it requires more than a piece of paper from you saying you’re going to award them two years of business after a multi-round RFP when you’re a first time buyer. Because they know that while you may have the wherewithal to enforce a contract in another country half a world away, they often don’t. And they know how many times they’ve been screwed in the past when they were told they’d get 100,000 units, but COVID hit, the market crashed, or the transport lanes (ports, borders, etc.) closed down and the orders never came.

You need to develop a true partnership, work with them, build up shared trust and commitment, stick to your promises, help them with their processes so they become more efficient, identify efforts they can make to significantly increase sustainability, and then make the long term commitment they need from you (and other major customers) to invest in better technology, build their own renewable energy grids, etc.

Why are we bringing this up? Because a recent article in VOGUE Business that asked if fashion’s buying practices are really improving had a very good point. While fashion brands make strong claims they are investing in longer-term strategic partnerships, and big consultancies like McKinsey quote impressive statistics (such as an increase from 26% to 43% over the last 4 years) on how the percentage of CPOs reporting longer-term strategic partnerships (which just translates into longer term contracts, but not necessarily guaranteed awards over the long term, as there are usually so many out clauses the contracts mean nothing), the reality is that when you ask the suppliers how things are going, it’s a completely different story. As the Vogue Business article point out, this year’s Better Buying Partnership Index saw just a one point increase in the garment industry’s buyer-supplier partnerships score. Just one point! That could be a rounding error.

Despite all the lip service, there has been no improvement in the fashion supply chain because, at the end of the day, as Lindsay Wright was quoted, simply claiming you have good partnerships with your suppliers isn’t going to cut it. If you want an honest picture of what’s really happening on the ground, you need to be asking suppliers, because they’re the only real arbiters of whether purchasing practices are improving.

And this holds true across supply chains. Partner with your suppliers on long term contracts and work on development initiatives with them if you want to increase sustainability. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is to just shut the f*ck up because you’re only contributing to the hot air.