By Claude Goguen, P.E., LEED AP
You value sustainability, but do your suppliers?
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” In a process that involves many people and steps, a weak point can lead to failure. Imagine a robust precast concrete quality control program that ignores the curing process or a precast plant safety program that does not include fall protection. In order for your plant’s sustainability program to be successful, you must examine all the links, including those that are very significant and often ignored: the supply chain.
Identify the weak link
As a precast concrete producer, you have many suppliers. Over the history of your company, you have chosen these suppliers based on many factors, including cost, quality and availability. In previous years, sustainability most likely did not influence your decision. Today, we live in a world where projects are awarded and building materials are selected on the basis of sustainability. Perhaps you chose to adopt sustainable practices in your plant to save money, enhance employee morale and safety, and be a good environmental steward. However, the company supplying you with a substantial amount of materials does not incorporate sustainability in its operations. It generates large amounts of waste and consumes excess energy with no plan or process in place to reduce its impact. There’s your weak link.
You can try to ignore those suppliers and sweep them under the rug, but their impact undeniably affects your impact. On the other hand, you may have a supplier who has a great company sustainability plan and those efforts benefit your bottom line. By having an awareness of environmental, social and economic performance throughout your supply chains, you can encourage improvement, conserve resources, optimize processes, foster product innovations, save costs, increase productivity and promote corporate values. Supply chain sustainability is growing. Here are a few tips for those of you that want to get started down the upstream path.
Map your supply chain
Start by identifying all your suppliers. Then, prioritize where to focus your efforts by listing the larger impacts from each supplier.
Communicate with your suppliers
Let your suppliers know about your sustainability focus and expectations. Some suppliers will have their own robust sustainability program and will readily work with you. Others may not be at that point and this will entice them to conduct their own assessment to seek ways to be more efficient. It’s a win-win for everyone.
For example, you get your Portland cement from XYZ Cement Co. We know cement manufacturing requires a lot of heat and energy. The cement industry is working to reduce its environmental footprint by setting improvement goals. Ask your suppliers what they are currently doing to reduce energy use. Ask them about products they offer that contain less embodied energy and would lower your product’s impact. Examine the possibility of using supplementary cementitious materials, thus lowering the use of Portland cement.
You should also list sustainable attributes from each supplier. Find out how much recycled steel is used in your rebar. Research how safe your chemicals are for use by employees. Perhaps the research discovers your aggregate supplier is doing some things to reduce waste and energy use. All these attributes become your attributes. List them in your sustainability marketing materials and on your company’s website and consider creating a dedicated webpage.
As mentioned previously in the cement example, suppliers may also have suggestions for products or equipment that lead to significant sustainable improvement. This could be an admixture that enhances durability or equipment that can treat process water for reuse. NPCA Associate Members have many products that can bolster your sustainability program. The annual NPCA Sustainability Awards gives recognition to a few of those products.
Monitor your suppliers’ progress
Now that you have a plan in place, it’s important to keep communicating with those suppliers on a regular basis. If they’ve set goals, how are they progressing? Ask them to provide periodic updates on current initiatives and hold regular meetings or conference calls to gauge progress.
The relationship you have with your suppliers should be a partnership. You are combining efforts to deliver the best product to your customer. When sustainability goals are achieved or benchmarks are reached, celebrate that with your suppliers to let them know you value their efforts. Communicating with suppliers in a constructive way is critical for future engagement and provides encouragement for improvement.
Sustainability is a team effort
It’s easy to focus solely on your plant’s processes when seeking to be more efficient and sustainable. To get the most out of your sustainability program, you must include your upstream partners. Leverage your buying power to influence those that might be slow to react. By collaborating with suppliers, you can encourage innovation and maintain communication in the hope that you can make significant headway toward achievement.
For any additional questions or comments, please contact Claude Goguen, director of sustainability and technical education, by email or at 317-571-9500.