Sustain 2023 saw a grand return to face-to-face collaboration with over 450 participants convening at the Trianon theatre in Paris on March 13-14 for EcoVadis’ flagship event dedicated to sustainable supply chains. Another 3000 participants from 82 countries joined online staying connected for an average of six hours.
Recognizing how the past three years had redefined change, challenge and uncertainty, the conference was organized around the theme #Committed. It spoke to the point that with the geopolitical order disrupted, the climate changing faster than we can adapt to and the global economic forecast weakened, we must, now more than ever, remain committed to driving change.
And what does true commitment entail? In short, it’s everything that leads to effective action: perseverance, going forward unyielding, and doing, not just trying. This means facing challenges, rather than avoiding them, even if we haven’t got a perfect solution in place.
Profitable Sustainability Solutions Need to Become Mainstream
The good news is, as the conference heard from a keynote by Bertrand Piccard, an explorer, entrepreneur and founder of The Solar Impulse Foundation, we already have most of the sustainability technology available – we just need to use it wisely. The Foundation has identified over 1000 clean, ecological solutions that can create jobs and generate profit while reducing emissions and preserving natural resources. It is also offering a solutions guide for political and business decision-makers to implement them on a large scale.
“We don’t have to choose to be economical or ecological, we just need to be logical,” Mr. Piccard said asserting that qualitative growth is possible. But to get there, we need to on the one hand abandon utopian goals and on the other break away from the inertia, accepting the fact that we live in a world of the past, full of inefficiency and waste. This requires a pioneering attitude. We need to be explorers and we need to act boldly – and demonstrating that taking a sustainable path is economically profitable can be a truly exciting venture.
Interestingly, with Sustain taking place just days before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its synthesis report -- the final part of the sixth assessment report, which was set up to provide scientific underpinning to international policy on the crisis -- this message could hardly be more pertinent. Commenting on the paper, John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, expressed a very similar sentiment, according to The Guardian : “Today’s message from the IPCC is abundantly clear: we are making progress, but not enough. We have the tools to stave off and reduce the risks of the worst impacts of the climate crisis, but we must take advantage of this moment to act now.”
Sustainable Progress Doesn’t Require Perfection
This message was echoed in one way or another by other speakers during the two-day event. Talking about their experiences in implementing sustainable procurement programs across their organizations, many of them spoke to the importance of actively pushing forward regardless of where they started. They asserted that to make progress there is no need to wait for a perfect set of rules, data or solutions. The key is not to waver or hope that new technology will be invented to solve the problem of global warming or that social, ethical and security issues will sort themselves out of their own accord. “It’s OK not to have the way paved for you. You’re going to figure it out, you just need to act,” Paige Goff, Sustainability VP at Domtar reflected.
Scope 3: No Time To Waste
The need to act and figure out the way as we go along rings particularly true with regard to managing Scope 3 emissions. “We don't need the perfect data, we need to get started, ” said Guido D’Agostino, Head of Global Procurement at Chiesi Group in a breakdown session discussing practitioner perspectives on supply chain decarbonization journey, explaining how the company became a B-Corp in 2019 and is now exploring the advantages of EcoVadis’ Carbon Action Module.
This view was shared by CDP a representative at the conference. Speaking in a session, entitled “Scope 3 Emissions and the Path Toward Net Zero,” Dexter Galvin, Global Director of Corporations & Supply Chains talked about how important it is to understand where a company’s suppliers are with regard to their emissions management and helping them get started on their sustainability journey. He emphasized that “Perfect Scope 3 data is not necessary to take action. We have to move as rapidly as possible.”
Schneider Electric’s VP of Sustainable Procurement, Christophe Quiquempoix concurred stating that there is “no time to waste [...]. We have to act now and start now. The time is now for us to work collectively all together from both the same and different industries to make it happen faster.”
Harnessing the Power of Supply Chains to Drive Sustainable Innovation
Reliance on technology and innovation as a key means to a faster sustainable transition was another topic that came through in a number of panel discussions and presentations during the two-day event. The question is, how do we take it further? How do we continue to innovate
For over a decade, companies have been harnessing the power of supply chains in order to transform products and services. And of course, with great power comes great responsibility. How do we, as buyers/consumers, manage and leverage that responsibility? The answer is to move from operational change to transformative improvement. We have made progress – but we’re not there yet.
Speakers in the Driving Improvements in the Value Chain panel discussed the idea of a pyramid of needs in managing supply chains: we start with receiving the product or service, we ask for improvement and finally, we ask for innovation. There are two ways: you can incrementally get better or start to question the system. Ask yourself two questions: 1) am I doing my best to drive systemic change? 2) am I avoiding change by locking myself in the existing system?
From Sustainability to Resilience
And while driving sustainable innovation across our organizations and supply chains it’s vital to remember that it also creates a huge competitive advantage resulting from resilience. In a discussion panel dedicated to purpose and profit, George Serafeim referenced studies of companies during the thickest of the COVID pandemic in March 2020, which showed
that companies with strong supply chains, supply chain relationships and employee relationships were much more resilient. “Competitive advantage resulting from resilience, much like a competitive advantage that is linked to efficiency is going to be very important across many different sectors in the economy,” he said.
Noteworthy is the fact that in March 2020, global markets dropped by about 25%, similar to the volatility we have today. When we then asked which companies were the most resilient – it was companies that had strong supply chains and strong supply relationships as well as strong relationships with their employees. This was to ensure safety and productivity.
And interestingly, this was benefiting the companies and how this effect was concentrated in the industries that were most affected. This was a very important lesson, the fact that over a decade we had a huge emphasis on efficiency, this has been transparent in price dropping, etc. but it has compromised things like supplier relationships, so this has shown that it’s important to focus not only on efficiency but also on relationships, supplier relationships.
The Essence of Sustainable Transformation: Collaboration, Quick Wins and Long-Term Goals
Another important message underlying most presentations was that no matter how we approach sustainable transformation, success won’t be possible without collaboration and setting clear long-term and mid-term goals. In other words, sustainability is a journey where starting with fast and easy goals will pave the way toward larger and heftier ones, engaging everyone on the way progressively. And this is true both in terms of how companies engage employees and business units internally as well as in external relations and sectoral collaboration.
Shristi Ella, ESG Project Manager at Husky Technologies pointed out how important it is to have both a top-down and as well as bottom-up approach and for employees to feel engaged and empowered to drive sustainability initiatives. “Employees have to feel they’re making a difference, they need to understand sustainability goals and why they’re important,” she said. And it’s vital, she continued, to make sure we have clear check-in points rather than setting 2050 objectives, which prove to be unrealistic.
In terms of wider, industry-level collaboration, sector initiatives, facilitated by EcoVadis are of course an excellent example. As Jan Paul van der Velde Chief Procurement Officer at AkzoNobel observed“Sector initiatives are the way forward. Step up and start collaborating. Time is of the essence, and to do it well you need to do it together.” He went on to explain that given companies in the same industry typically share a great many suppliers, it makes sense to know which ones they are. “ It is about the goal - how can you make sure that your suppliers can effectively work with the entire industry. We have fear competition on some, but there is no competition on this. In order to make this change, an industry needs to step up all together, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Christianna Reed, Vice President, General Counsel at Brooks Automation concurred, “One company alone won’t change the world, but by working together we can have so much success.”
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