How Small Businesses Can Implement Sustainable Supply Chain Practices

How Small Businesses Can Implement Sustainable Supply Chain Practices

Organizations implementing sustainable supply chain practices face increased expenses associated with upfront investments. But new strategies are emerging to change that.


  • 93% of supply chain organizations have implemented environmental initiatives. Still, more plan to do so in the next five years.
  • Unlike some sustainability initiatives that require large upfront investment, other strategies synergize with business interests.
  • A holistic vision is key to initiating sustainable practices.

Sustainability is on-trend in the business world. But, how do you view sustainable initiatives — a debilitating upfront investment or an exciting opportunity to enhance your company’s bottom line? Many small businesses find themselves in the former camp. However, new strategies are emerging that may change that.

What does sustainable practice mean?

A recent study conducted by Llamasoft and the Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed 250 senior executives from manufacturing and retail companies worldwide. The report showed that 93% of supply chain organizations have implemented environmental initiatives. Still, more plan to do so in the next five years.

Regulatory standards and consumer priorities are making it increasingly urgent for companies of all sizes to rethink their operations in terms of sustainability. A 2018 Nielsen study found that 81% of global consumers are convinced that companies have a responsibility to employ policies that prevent further harm to the planet. The U.S. has seen increased regulation related to environmental protection, including emissions standards and the recovery/reuse of packaging material. In the U.K., companies employing more than 500 people are required to report on their sustainability practices, and, according to Nielsen, 71% of Europeans place a high value on maintaining ethical and sustainable lifestyles.

Whether this means costs or benefits for your organization depends a great deal on what exactly you understand sustainability to mean. While it’s easy to associate sustainability with hard-to-achieve environmental goals, industry experts are starting to think a little more capaciously about how companies can participate in a sustainable supply chain. If we think about sustainability as “meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own,” then organizations can find more flexible strategies for achieving sustainability that suit their needs and abilities.

Costs of sustainability

Organizations implementing green initiatives face increased expenses associated with upfront investments. New equipment, more expensive sourcing costs, and the personnel required to oversee these changes make the early stages of investing in sustainable practices a daunting prospect for many companies. And the obstacles don’t end there. According to Llamasoft’s study, significant challenges facing sustainability initiatives include the difficulty of monitoring complex supply chains and the need for organizational structures that can implement new policies. Interestingly, 38% of executives surveyed cite the costs associated with these challenges as a deterrent to implementing further initiatives.

Yet 33% reported that their companies had initiated sustainability drives because of the benefits to their bottom line. What accounts for the difference?

Sustainable practices: the bottom line

As the survey indicates, sustainability and profitability are not actually mutually exclusive options. Unlike some sustainability initiatives that require large upfront investment, other strategies synergize with business interests.

Efforts aimed at increasing the efficiency and agility of supply chain organizations can yield sustainability benefits as a rewarding side-effect. Consolidating shipments, efficient route design, and multi-echelon inventory optimization serve both profitability and sustainability goals. Intelligent product design that allows for efficiency of shipping and storage also contributes to carbon footprint reduction. Just think of Costco’s switch from round to square pistachio jars that enhanced supply and storage capacities and reduced the emissions of its truck fleet at the same time! Additionally, periodically overhauling operations with sustainability in mind has proven to be a good tactic for efficiency, as well, leading to more precise inventory levels and more accurate predictive management.

Upfront costs can often be quickly recouped not only through improved efficiency, but also through the brand identity enhancement associated with companies that effectively publicize their sustainability practices. Integrating green initiatives into marketing and branding strategies offers an intangible advantage beyond measurable profits or benefits to the planet.

Many businesses are looking to brand themselves as leaders in sustainability. Many large organizations successfully do this by engaging with suppliers to encourage sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. In the past, large organizations used environmental criteria as a tie-breaker in awarding contracts to smaller supply companies. But, sustainable practices are increasingly becoming a requirement in order for supply chain companies to bid in the first place. In fact, 88% of executives surveyed by Llamasoft indicated that their organizations keep track of supplier sustainability ratings, often developing their own evaluations, such as:

  1. Supplier scorecards that allow companies to rate the practices of other businesses in their supply chain, facilitating comparison among potential suppliers
  2. Public targets, which some companies require suppliers to meet in order to retain their contracts (Hewlett Packard, for instance, has launched a campaign requiring 80% of their suppliers to set certain emissions reduction targets by 2025.)
  3. Awards that allow companies to recognize suppliers that successfully initiate green policies

Sustainable practices for small companies

These benefits, however, are predominantly available to large global companies that have the capital, scale of operations, and leverage with trading partners to make sustainable practices practical. So, what can small businesses do to rate highly for sustainability — not to mention, gain the same branding advantages enjoyed by large organizations?

A holistic vision is key to initiating sustainable practices. Your company’s sustainability doesn’t ride solely on internal practices, such as the management of your fleet. It is just as important to consider how sustainable your suppliers are, for example.

From this perspective, selecting off-shore suppliers with lower per-unit costs can often incur longer-term disadvantages. Companies risk increasing their carbon footprint due to the greater shipping distance. Further, longer lead times necessitate holding more inventory, which equates to higher holding costs and storage facility energy emissions.

In short, the best way for any business — large or small — to practice sustainability is to optimize practices throughout the supply chain. Regulatory standards and consumer preferences are increasingly bending that way, and soon you’ll be in the minority if you’re not an active advocate for a sustainable supply chain.

This post originally appeared on EBN Online.

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