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Written by Omera Khan

Are supply chain and procurement professionals ready and able to spearhead sustainability?

Are supply chain and procurement professionals ready and able to spearhead sustainability? This is the big question that we explore in our new report: The sustainability imperative: an agenda for change.

It’s no secret that sustainability is scaling corporate agendas, propelled by consumers and investors who want to do better by our planet. Business leaders globally are looking at their operations and asking how they can become more sustainable – and they’re turning to their supply chain and procurement teams for answers.

Why? Because an organization’s suppliers have a huge impact on its sustainability performance. Emissions in the supply chain – so-called ‘Scope 3 emissions’ – can make up as much as 95% of a business’ overall emissions footprint, so harnessing procurement and supply chain teams to this task clearly makes good sense. These people also tend to be the link between suppliers, and their own organization’s design teams, meaning they’re perfectly placed to bring a sustainability perspective into the design process.

But are supply chain and procurement professionals ready to take on this role? Encouragingly, our research, conducted among 210 supply chain and procurement professionals across the UK and US, suggests that they are. Four in five (81%) feel energized by the opportunity to drive sustainability improvements, while almost two-thirds (65%) entered the profession for this very reason.
Professionals clearly understand their potential to make a meaningful difference – and they’re ready to unleash it. Almost all (97%) are already implementing sustainability initiatives. What’s more, many are adopting circular economy principles, widely regarded as intrinsic to really shifting the dial on sustainability. Almost three-quarters (71%) report that some or all of their organization’s products are made using recycled materials.

Taken together, these statistics paint a reassuring picture, surely? Supply chain and procurement professionals want to drive sustainability progress, and are taking steps to do so – but is this enough? Can supply chain and procurement professionals make a real difference and lead their organizations to a more sustainable future?

On this point, our research is less clear. Perhaps – but right now they’re encountering systemic barriers that will hamper their progress.

Chief among these, is that most businesses are set up to prioritize profit, rather than the planet. Organizations – and their people – are encouraged and incentivized to produce more and profit more. Our research suggests that supply chain and procurement professionals are struggling to swim against this tide. Over a third (37%) say that a habit of prioritizing cost above sustainability in decision making prevents them making improvements in this area, while 59% say that it’s easier to focus on cost savings than sustainability.

A related challenge is that leaders are accustomed to assessing prospective investments by the financial returns they will deliver – and they’re marking sustainability initiatives against the same criteria. Three in five (59%) survey respondents say that leaders will only approve sustainability initiatives with clear ROI. This is a real challenge for professionals looking to get sustainability projects off the ground, as the returns on these are often hard to quantify, taking the form of reputational gains or business longevity.

Clearly, leaders need to play a large part in removing these roadblocks, but are supply chain and procurement teams powerless to improve sustainability until they do? The answer here is a resounding ‘no’. Our report details five actions that professionals can take now to start driving meaningful change.

Please download and read the full report to explore our findings in more detail, and learn what supply chain and procurement professionals can do to start driving sustainability progress now.

Dr. Professor Omera Khan's venture into supply chain management began at Cranfield School of Management, after completing a Masters in Design Procurement at UMIST (University of Manchester, UK) followed by a PhD in Supply Chain Risk Management at the Alliance Manchester Business School.

Omera Khan