How to Find a More Sustainable Manufacturer and Supplier

You can go to great lengths to clean up your operation, go carbon-neutral and source your materials ethically, and still contribute to a sustainability-challenged supply chain. Sustainability requires cooperation up and down the supply chain, from sourcing and manufacturing to warehousing and shipping. A supply chain is only as green as its weakest link.

Now that you know to take a closer look at your manufacturers and suppliers, what should you look for? And how can you set yourself up to find the right partner in sustainability?

Develop a Set of Standards

We’re talking about holding others to specific standards. To do that, we need to identify those guidelines and commit to living by them ourselves. We also need to make them clear to others before we enter into business with anybody. These standards will be the metric against which you evaluate the sustainability and even culture of your potential manufacturer and supplier partners. They should describe you and your ideal partners’ approach to things like:

  • Sustainable sourcing for raw materials or unfinished goods
  • Employee conditions and good business ethics
  • Use of clean energy
  • Efforts to curb emissions from vehicles and facilities
  • Recycling programs for waste generated during manufacturing and for EOL equipment or products

Consider the Whole Supply Chain

You know what to look for now, and you’ve got a set of sustainability priorities you want to begin holding your suppliers accountable for. The next step in cleaning up your act is to survey each of your supply chain partners.

Take time to quiz your suppliers on each of the environmental stewardship factors that are most important to you. Ask them a battery of questions, and request proof in the form of documentation, if it’s available.

Familiarize yourself with some of the prominent sustainability credentials and certifications that businesses can earn if they choose to. You’re probably familiar with and may even already look for partners who follow LEED building standards. But you can look for other “trust signals” as well, like TRUE Zero Waste certification and B Lab certification for “social and environmental performance.”

Look specifically at the following areas:

  • Do they manufacture their products in-house or source them from elsewhere?
  • Can they vouch for their suppliers, in turn?
  • Are efforts or investments underway to curb emissions from the manufacturing or distribution process?

In other words, you’re asking your suppliers and manufacturers to stand up for their partners the same way you want to be able to vouch for yours. You’re going to turn up some companies who don’t share your priorities or have a different endgame in mind. You’ll either decide not to associate with them, or you may inspire them to make changes. Current headlines tend to drive home the importance of ongoing compliance checks, as well as the unfortunate temptation to fudge the truth when your organization comes under scrutiny. Keep surveying your partners over time to see if they’re keeping to their word. Better yet, decide on environmental and sustainability benchmarks to reach, together, then help keep each other accountable.

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Look for Investments in Sustainability

Some companies say they’re investing in reducing their impact on the environment, but end up wasting money on the problem because they haven’t properly defined their goal or don’t understand what they’re investing in.

When you’re looking for manufacturers and suppliers, and you want to know who’s serious about becoming more sustainable and who is merely dabbling, look at how they spend their money. If a company donates to a sustainability initiative or society like the Earth Day Network or the Sierra Club, they’ll probably make it known.

Or, you could start your search at the Green Business Bureau or another certifying body to see if your potential partners are listed as members. Membership in such a group could indicate they’ve made investments in greener material choices, greener transportation practices, cleaner energy portfolios and low- or zero-waste commitments.

Even now, they can begin making wise investments, even if their only goal is to set the stage for a more sustainable and cleanly run business rather than jumping in headfirst into the Internet of Things, for example.

Look for potential manufacturers who are committed to doing more with less, reusing manufacturing waste, and using additive and lean manufacturing.

Look for suppliers that use enterprise planning software with machine intelligence, location tools for shipments and assets and predictive modeling to match supply with demand. Every efficiency tool does double duty as a sustainability tool.

Also, look for any company that makes smart use of things like automated lights and climate control, or uses predictive maintenance to ensure their machines work efficiently and don’t waste energy. Factories and distribution centers are getting smarter all the time, just like our homes.

Show What You’ve Learned

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If there’s one thing we should know about the fight for sustainability, it’s that quality information — and how well we share that information — is key. With this in mind, you should work toward making your company the “face” of sustainability in your niche. That might mean providing training and educational resources for your suppliers so they can learn what you’ve learned. Information sharing will only uncover additional insights and opportunities as you gain attention. 

You can, and should, also get involved with educating the public on why sustainable practices are such a common-sense and value-adding upgrade. If you run a soap company that operates domestically on energy generated from wind and solar, folks will want to hear about it and see it in action. Or, if you’ve developed a set of agricultural guidelines for scalable and sustainable growth, tell the world about it.

Plus, any number of studies prove consumers want companies that are mindful of their place in the world and actively working toward change. If you can prove “going green” works in a visible, tangible and practical way, you might find yourself with more offers for orders and business partnerships than you can handle.