Tiffany Finley, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

You have passed.
Your score is 68 out of 100.
You have issues to be resolved before proceeding to the next level.

These cryptic messages sound like levels within a video game, when in reality they represent customer feedback on supplier performance against customer standards. They reinforce the customer service mantra: The customer is always right. This can be a high risk setup, however, when the customers are large multi-national companies whose expectations do not necessarily align with their suppliers’ basic operational needs—including sustainability within their own value chain.

As hot issues rise and fall within industry supply chains, suppliers have become increasingly targeted and therefore reactive to external pressure—the same trap that their customers have and may still fall into today. This reactive approach further reinforces the concept that change and sustainability must come from outside—be it customer pressure, government regulation, or NGO “name-and-shame” campaigns.

Yet, what would happen if we asked suppliers a different question? A question not rooted in mistrust, compliance reinforcing minimal efforts to pass, or obtainment of a good score regardless of the actions taken to achieve it. What if the question, instead, was about the holistic business case to invest in sustainability? Take away customer pressure, and suppliers still have a business imperative to act sustainably, but they often do not recognize it as sustainability. So what if we focused that time on supporting suppliers in doing what brands have done for years—making the business case internally to win financing and executive level buy-in, and to develop a sustainability strategy that can be rolled out to all of their locations. Would that help the value chain move towards sustainable practices faster?

We plan on finding out as part of the Mills & Sundries Working Group’s new model, which kicks off in January 2013!