Briony Mathieson, Global Head of Corporate & Sustainability Communications at Olam international, told Ethical Corporation her 5 "don'ts" when it comes to supply chain sustainability

The sustainability of modern supply chains is under scrutiny from all angles, with consumers, manufacturers, processors and farmers all keen to ensure affordability and profitability. With such tensions in the chain, how can ‘the middle man’ deliver on demands of global customers and mobilise staff in the changing landscape of ever-higher stakeholder expectations?

1 - Don’t over-promise

It’s very easy to get carried away and over-promise, but sustainability targets should never be divorced from your basic business principles. Road-test promises internally before they are communicated to the outside world – especially when they are made within customer partnerships.

Simultaneously is a trend for companies to set extremely ambitious aspirations, openly admitting they don’t actually know how to achieve these goals. However contradictory it may seem, being realistic today while having aspirations to make enormous strides tomorrow is possible and even expected in today’s business landscape. For example, while Unilever aims to help more than 1 billion people improve their health and well-being by 2020, in the meantime they have achieved ‘zero non-hazardous waste to landfill’ from their global factory network.

It is also important to remember that it is OK to fail – as long as you’re honest about it and commit to fixing it.

2 – Don’t alienate colleagues

No sustainability targets can be achieved by the sustainability team alone. We need our colleagues to deliver on our promises. However, sustainability has developed its own jargon-filled language which tends to alienate those working outside of it - take the term ‘capacity building’. While it means giving people the necessary knowledge and skills to shape their own development, I’ve had numerous instances where colleagues thought we were talking about building extra factory processing volume or similar! The reality is still that many of us are driving change on a time-poor workforce focused on commercial priorities, so we need to ensure the language we use is easy to digest and creates an inclusive way of working.

3 – Don’t doubt yourself

There is a growing pressure from customers, shareholders and NGOs to comply with regulated sustainability schemes. While external certification bodies, such as FairTrade and Rainforest Alliance, act as third party auditors and provide reassurance to customers, it is often true that no-one knows your business better than yourself. We believe that in addition to third party certification, there is a role for companies to develop verification schemes that are independently audited.

Therefore, based on our know-how and experience of being at the farmgate year-round for the past 25 years, we have effectively built our own scheme, called the Olam Livelihood Charter (OLC). Now in its fifth year, the OLC is a set of eight Principles which support thriving rural communities. We have developed strong NGO partnerships to help deliver training, farmers are supported by a host of initiatives and paid premiums based on quality, while customers are given the choice of various certification schemes.

Our OLC targets are ambitious: to reach 800,000 farmers by 2020. We are currently at 350,000 farmers who are being supported by all eight principles and the OLC has been recognised by the Guardian Sustainable Business Award for social impact – an example of tip number one in action!

4 - Don’t collect data for data’s sake

Don’t get obsessed by the metrics without knowing why you’re collecting them or how to usefully act upon them. Focus on impact, insight, outcomes and improvement, not the glory of numbers.

Sustainability is being funnelled down a metrics path, prompted in part by integrated reporting and GRI G4. We should embrace these frameworks – or at least the data points they identify—making sure they are consistently collected. They help us both internally and to share a common understanding and definitions with external partners. On the whole they are the numbers that we all ought to know if we want to run a company in the right way today.

5 – Don’t go it alone

Companies don’t operate in isolation. There is a paradigm shift towards collaboration, and the nature of where and how to compete is being re-framed. The CEO of a global telecoms company once said that his biggest business regret was wasting over a decade and billions of pounds’ investment before he discussed sharing infrastructure such as masts with his competitors.

As the new tier of managers come through I think we will see this behaviour shift happen more organically – millennials are naturally more familiar with collaborating than competing. We live in a time when we can’t claim ignorance of the developmental issues that threaten our shared future and we’re lucky that we have the facts and channels to inform, educate and influence change. Let’s make sure, as professionals in this field, that we don’t squander that opportunity.

Further insights on the topic will be presented by Briony Mathieson at the Sustainable Supply Chain Summit (10-11 November), London. Briony Mathieson will speak about customer and consumer engagement alongside David Clark, Vice President - Safety Environment & Sustainability at Amcor and Kemal Kaptaner, Sr. Director Corporate Communications at Türk Telekom Group.

Get a full run-down of the event with your e-brochure.

Olam  supply chain 

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