A black and white choice
When you’re looking to make strides in the sustainability space, the end goal is often the thought that dominates minds. How you take the initial steps, though, is equally critical, as Howcroft acknowledges.
“You can normally split companies into two areas when it comes to launching sustainability goals and efforts,” she says, keen to emphasise that there’s no approach that is either right or wrong. “On the one hand you have visionary companies who will launch some very ambitious goals and then the company slowly rallies behind them.
“Other companies want to see things being delivered before they put their stake in the sand. I would definitely say that Avantor is the latter.”
There are pros and cons to both, with Howcroft arguing that although visionary targets allow you to "mobilise your company very quickly," they also, in some ways, remove suppliers from the process.
“You have that friction – how do you bring people on a journey who perhaps haven’t been involved in that strategy development piece?” she says. “On the tried and tested approach – you don’t have that North Star which you can put in front of your people – but it does allow you to test and learn.”
Taking your suppliers with you
One of the key elements of the phased approach is communication; ensuring that suppliers have a clear understanding, both of the ultimate aim and also the role that they can play.
“How will we manage this? We need to communicate with suppliers clearly so that they understand why we’re doing things in this sequence,” says Howcroft. “Hopefully the benefit to suppliers is that this allows us to be more flexible. So, once we’ve initiated our pilot and been through phase one and we get feedback that it isn’t working, or that there’s a better way of doing it, because we haven’t launched those headline goals, I think we’re in a better position to be able to adapt and shift very quickly. We can make sure we are bringing our suppliers on a journey with us.”
Once everyone is on board, it then makes the design and introduction of a business case a truly collaborative process. It creates what Howcroft refers to as a "harmonised narrative" to take to those at the top of the business.
Gaining visibility is key
In order for any supplier programme to be successful, it’s crucial that companies have as much visibility into both the sourcing cycle and the supplier lifecycle as possible. “Whether it’s business requirements, or whether we’re tendering them and asking for things, or whether they’re a high-risk supplier and we’re auditing them, we’re probably going to be asking them for data,” says Howcroft.
Fundamental to Avantor's new programme is the formulation of specific indicators that the company needs to demonstrate meaningful progress in the supply chain.
“We’ve really focused on, not how much waste have you produced this year or how many greenhouse gas emissions have you reduced this year, it’s really: what is the ultimate end goal? And how we want our suppliers to get there so we can focus on training and education,” says Howcroft. “The focus is really standardised indicators across the supply chain so that you can interact very quickly with them and at any point and in a very efficient way.”
With the programme yet to launch, Avantor is still in discussions over how it will segment its suppliers when it comes to sustainability. Howcroft, however, confirmed that there will definitely be two distinct categories moving forward – one being high risk and the other being high impact. For the former, there will be a focus on assurance and monitoring. For the latter, there will be an emphasis on change management – and looking at the key levers within the external supply chain that can be pushed to help generate that change. All of which will feed into a performance dashboard, which aggregates the data Avantor requires.
What does the future look like?
Avantor will be fully signed up and committed to science-based targets by the end of the year. But when it comes to providing information around areas such as emissions moving forward, Howcroft has a personal opinion on the best way of capturing the information companies are required to submit. “This is just a personal opinion,” she says. “But my view is that if we all sign up to the same thing, and it has a robust methodology and the elements of reporting associated with that methodology and we all agree to get there at the same time – then surely that is a better effort than asking people year-on-year to record their greenhouse gas emissions.” That would, Howcroft argues, enable more time for collaboration to ensure that targets are hit in the original instance. That debate will continue for some time yet, with monitoring and measuring continuing to provide both opportunities and challenges for procurement organisations across the globe.
Creating a sense of purpose
Ultimately, the methods used by companies to reach an endpoint might vary, but Howcroft believes it’s essential that there’s a commonality of purpose. “One interesting learning is that, if you have a responsible supplier programme – and I’m sure we all have versions of it – you need to consider what its purpose is,” she says. “Consider, am I doing this to help suppliers to make a change? Or am I doing it to get data to measure something? That can be equally important, but we need to get the narrative right for what this programme is trying to achieve. We really need to maintain a focus on what we’re trying to do and then stay true to that intent. We then need to be really clear with suppliers why we’re being difficult, why we’re asking for this, so that they can be part of that journey too.”
The full Decade of our Lives webinar with Emma Howcroft of Avantor is available to watch on demand here.