Top tips for engaging with suppliers on sustainability

As a hospitality business, maintaining strong relationships with suppliers is paramount for success. A sudden focus on sustainability can put your suppliers on edge, so it’s important to reassure them that you want to take them along with you and help them with achieving your sustainability goals. It also makes a big difference if they can see the authenticity of what you are trying to achieve and know it isn’t just a tickbox exercise. That means you need to show clear leadership, defining your desired outcomes, setting targets and monitoring progress towards them.  

One of the first steps in setting out your strategy needs to be establishing visibility over your supply chain from a sustainability perspective. This visibility can then help you define your desired outcomes, set realistic targets and ensure you have a means for monitoring these on a regular basis. However, most businesses struggle with this first step. Based on our experience helping numerous hospitality businesses with their supplier engagement these are our top tips:  

Re-assure your suppliers and give them a heads-up

Explain to your suppliers why you are starting to focus on sustainability; that you value your relationships with them and want to work with them to achieve your sustainability goals; that your first step will be to establish visibility over your supply chain impact and you will be grateful for their help with this. Tell them what this will involve and give them a deadline. Be sympathetic and try to avoid busy periods, but also be persistent in following up if they don’t meet your deadline. 

Simplify your ask as far as possible

Sustainability can be very complex and there are multiple factors that can be taken into consideration when you begin your sustainability journey. One of the key things you can do is make it easy for your suppliers to understand sustainability. You can simplify the process by asking them the questions they can easily answer. Yes/no questions with supporting evidence are much easier to answer than open-ended questions. Direct them towards product-specific questions relevant to them so that they aren’t overwhelmed by irrelevant questions.

Focus on what’s materially important

Most material spend

How is your spend split? Your suppliers will be more willing to put in the work to support you if you are spending a significant amount with them. If you have suppliers you spend very little with, focus your efforts (at least initially) on those suppliers you purchase most from. Similiarly, if you want specific product information, you might want to focus on those products you spend most on.  

Most material impact

You may also want to do an initial materiality assessment to determine which products or purchases have the most impact from a sustainability perspective, and which have the most likely room for improvement. Measuring what you can’t easily improve isn’t the most motivating strategy, but if you start by focusing on those areas you think you can improve, then you and your suppliers will feel more motivated and confident when you bring in the more challenging products later on. Identifying these areas of focus will help you kickstart conversations with your key suppliers and set realistic goals.

Decide how you want to report first

There is nothing more frustrating for suppliers than putting the work into to produce information that is never used. If you don’t ask for information in the right format, you might not be able to use it effectively for reporting, so consider first how you want to use the information your suppliers provide you with first and then design the questions you want to ask them.

Host supplier engagement days

Share sustainability best practice

More often than not suppliers are keen on improving their sustainability practices, but may not know how or what is possible. Supplier engagement days are normally very popular with suppliers, as they are an opportunity for them to build their relationship with you and share solutions with other non-competitive suppliers.  

Reward and inspire suppliers

They are also an opportunity for you to reward and publicly acknowledge your best performing suppliers from a sustainability perspective and get them to inspire the others by sharing what they are doing and the solutions that are working for them.

Discuss challenges and collaborate on solutions

These engagement days are a fantastic opportunity for suppliers to voice some of their challenges and discuss potential collaborative solutions with you or your other suppliers. 

Communicate next steps

Use a day like this to kick-off your supplier engagement, or if you’ve already set specific targets, use this as an opportunity to share these with them and explain how you will be monitoring progress 

Set targets and establish regular reviews

Set targets and strategies for meeting them together with your suppliers. Then establish a time to review progress towards these alongside overall performance. These reviews should be two-way. You may also have commitments to demonstrate progress too. Perhaps you have agreed to purchase more of a different type of product that will have a lower impact. If you haven’t done this, these reviews will be an opportunity to discuss why and whether there have been any operational barriers to achieving this, such as stock availability. By being open about the challenges and the progress, it becomes easier to discover solutions that may require a slight change on both sides. 

Incentivise and reward your suppliers for meeting their sustainability targets

Finally, motivation plays a big role in delivering progress and it always helps to provide incentives and rewards to show appreciation for your supplier efforts. You can offer incentives through better payment terms, negotiating a preferential supplier agreement or through long-term procurement deals. Additionally, you can also spotlight their achievements and progress within your business, communicate it to your customers and offer them greater brand visibility. 

Get expert help

Hopefully, these tips have given you a good foundation for engaging with your suppliers and driving progress towards your sustainability goals. Supplier engagement can be very time-consuming, so if you still feel overwhelmed by it or would like to tap into our existing database of supplier sustainability information, please do get in touch.

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