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Removing the Internal Tension Between Cost and Sustainability

By May 5, 2024No Comments

“Only when we stop accepting the fact that procurement is being made to make decisions that are not the best for the future but the best for business today will we really start to take action.” Alex Jennings, Former CPO DS Smith, Independent Consultant at APSL Consulting Ltd

As organizations around the world progress towards more environmentally and socially sustainable practices, procurement increasingly finds themselves on the frontlines of execution. In doing so, they play a critical role in enabling the business to reach its ESG goals and work towards a more sustainable supply chain. 

But, what happens when the business doesn’t seem to care about sustainability at all or, at worse, even challenges it? Can procurement embark on a journey toward sustainability alone, without the business by their side… and, if so, how?

In this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Alex Jennings, Former CPO of DS Smith, Independent Consultant at APSL Consulting Ltd, and founder of Alchemie Networks, a newly launched organization that promotes collaborative learning around ESG and sustainability for procurement.

Drawing on his multiple decades of senior leadership roles in procurement, Alex offers his advice for boots-on-the-ground procurement teams, practitioners, category managers, and buyers on how to proceed with sustainability initiatives without any support – financial or otherwise – from the business.

Ask Yourself the Hardest Question

“If you’re at an organization where sustainability is challenged and price takes a huge preference over doing the right thing, then there are two things, really. One, ‘Is that where you want to work?’ said Alex. 

This requires a bit of professional soul searching for procurement, but this exercise is well worth it in an environment where many companies are failing to, as he puts it, “remove the internal tension that exists between the cost of the service or product that they buy, and the sustainable solution.”

Procurement’s much-needed voice can help change the narrative around sustainability, but individual practitioners also have to be honest with themselves about how far their employer is – or isn’t – willing to go, and, ultimately, whether they are ok with that. 

“I remember standing on a CIPS stage a couple of years ago and being asked a question about this. I said, ‘You own this problem as procurement professionals, and you need to change the company you work for. If you can’t change the company you work for, you need to change the company you work for,’” said Alex. 

“Only at that point – when we stop accepting the fact that we are being made to make decisions that are not the best for the future but the best for business today – will we really start to take action.” 

Rise to the Challenge

Frustrated practitioners and category managers can indeed make a difference, assured Alex, even when sustainability is last in line for the business. They don’t have to wait for top-down mandates or even support. They can start moving the needle now within their own categories and supply bases.

“Take it as a challenge and find commercially acceptable solutions that deliver what you want to do from a sustainability perspective,” he said. 

Take the initiative to seek out suppliers who are commercially appealing but who also share your commitment to sustainability efforts. Buyers and category managers can enact significant impact on the business, even if it’s quietly or from behind-the-scenes.

“You really have to connect those dots and work with those suppliers,” who support your mission around sustainability, he said. “Then, get the leading supplier from a competitive perspective who will also be the leader when it comes to creating sustainable solutions. You can do that in the background. You don’t need company support for that. You can make that happen in your own category and feel very good about it.”

For organizations that only prioritize cost, identifying suppliers who check both boxes on pricing and sustainability are a win-win for procurement. “The fact that you have ticked both boxes may look from above like a coincidence, but it’s something that you can personally own.”

The main point, says Alex, is that procurement doesn’t have to feel powerless to work on sustainability goals even when the business doesn’t seem all that interested. They can still take actionable steps within their individual categories and through one-on-one supplier relationships to move the needle, and that accumulation of good decision making will ultimately drive real organizational change and progress.

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