Sustainable Procurement – the purchase that keeps on giving

Ruth Pires is a marketing and procurement professional and fearless eco-warrior.  She also edits our monthly newsletter... and disagrees with some of my recent posts on sustainable procurement, as she explains here...

The sustainable procurement series at Spend Matters suggested that all activities in this space needed to have a clear business benefit. I know what Peter Smith meant, but I have to disagree. Sometimes we should just “do the right thing”.  And perhaps the benefits will follow anyway.

There is a view today that ‘business’ is by nature partly responsible for the social problems that we face globally. However I have always had a strong view that responsible business practices can help eliminate some of the problems we see around the world.

Child labour in stone quarries is an example of one serious problem throughout some developing countries. To help combat this, one UK business, Marshalls, has taken the lead in their sector by working with suppliers to eliminate child labour in their supply chain, funding an education programme to address the root causes of the issue. Although this adds to their costs, Marshalls are clear that it’s the ‘right thing’ to do and know (or hope at least) that their customers will support their important work on this issue.

Take a micro example closer to home. SMart Network, a registered charity that has been helping socially marginalised individuals in London regain their sense of purpose through creative expression; painting and other artistic activities.

SMart Network has been fortunate enough to avoid relying on government funding, developing relationships with local businesses and corporate organisations such as Morgan Stanley, Credit Swiss, Diageo and Ernst  & Young to fund services e.g art workshops for rough sleepers, integrated events that help to break down social barriers, and affordable art for the masses. But what’s in it for the organisations partnering with such a charity?

It can be actually buying goods or services from the charity -  art-based team building workshops, artwork which sparks interesting client conversation in the boardroom, an invitation to private charity dinners with vast networking opportunities. But ultimately organisations chose to work with SMart for less tangible reasons that are not easily measured in a spreadsheet.

Take a recent art-based workshop with members of Harrods’ management team, which led to an invitation for a gallery exhibition at the retailers Knightsbridge store later this year. Harrods could draw any number of elite artists for an exhibition; however the choice for SMart to exhibit, to my mind anyway, demonstrates perhaps an element of care towards promoting something that was of value to the community, over simple budget considerations.

And even Spend Matters is doing its bit; rather than outsourcing a creative brief (the design work for the ‘Reader Comment Award’, the long anticipated prize as seen in our Monthly Newsletter - sign up here) to a regular design agency, Spend Matters has enlisted the SMart ‘artists’. It’s a step in the sustainable procurement direction, on a local scale.

So I believe this area presents a fantastic opportunity for procurement departments to impact business strategy, taking a wider (as opposed to bottom-line linear) approach to purchasing decisions. Team up with your marketing and CSR departments, find out what their objectives are. Maybe it’s possible to procure and promote simultaneously. Marketing will always be on the look out for fresh and innovative ways to talk about the brand and / or products in alternative ‘social’ circles.

Yes sure, there must be a business case, but often a hard-nosed approach lacks the overall bigger picture and vision that ultimately make up the success of a business, its culture, the brand and the reasons customers want to engage with it. But why now?

The business landscape is changing as companies take more active responsibility for the resources they use and the communities they rely on, both locally and globally. Is it the right thing to do? Definitely. Does it impact the bottom line? Probably, but you need to take into account the total business impact - there’s almost certainly a golden ticket in there somewhere… brand value, new partnerships and networks, market leadership, innovation!

Directly or indirectly, accountability to stakeholders representing social and environmental interests as well as economic ones is important. Now more than ever, organisations will need to align their vision, strategies and innovation not only with the here and now of today’s competitive markets but also with the social and environmental landscape that will form the markets of tomorrow. And that may sometimes mean simply “doing the right thing”.

 

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