“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” Albert Einstein is alleged to have said.
But when it comes to sustainability in the supply chain, “it's all about the data.” So says Helen Carter, sector manager for facilities management, infrastructure and off-site at the Supply Chain Sustainability School (SCSS). Clients are asking more and more from their supply chain and “in the construction sector, it all comes down to being able to measure and evidence what we’re doing”.
The school was set up to improve the green credentials of suppliers in the construction industry in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics. Shaun McCarthy, chair of SCSS and formerly chairman of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, sums it up neatly: “Construction of the Olympic park changed everything.”
Clients started insisting on a standard of sustainability, and discovered the supply chain didn’t get it.
“The supply chain needs help,” says McCarthy. “You can’t just throw a whole load of new requirements at a supply chain and expect them to comply.” Doing this also loads risk onto suppliers, pushing prices up and perpetuating “the myth that sustainability costs more, which it doesn’t. What costs more is bad procurement.”
It’s the responsibility of buyers to make sure their supply chain stays competitive on issues of sustainability. Sustainability is inherently a competitive advantage anway – at a rail supplier day run by SCSS one major contractor advised businesses not to even use “the S-word” when tendering. Instead talk about how you reduced the materials, how you cut down waste and how you skilled your workforce.
The event also provided a platform for suppliers to let off steam.
“We all have examples of submitting a tender, going into an awful lot of detail about social and environmental capabilities and the things we’re doing – and they’re not easy things to measure – only to have the news come back saying you’re £40 too expensive,” one supplier commented.
He continued that when you’re tendering to a “sub-contracted sub-contractor who’s then dealing with a main contractor, one of the issues we’ve got is the benefits of providing data versus the cost of providing that data”.
Speaking to SM afterwards, McCarthy dismisses this. “Suppliers like to have a good moan,” he says, comparing sustainability to the introduction of quality management standards in 1979. “The bleat was almost the same: ‘Oh, I’ve got my quality management standard and my client only wants cheap stuff’. But now quality management is just what we do as the norm. It needs to be built in over time.”
Another criticism of buyers that emerged during the event was that they often lacked the flexibility to accept innovation that came from the supply chain. Afterwards Kirsty Young, head of consent, environment and property at Network Rail, admits: “I suspect we’re not flexible enough on that.” She says dialogue and good scheduling can help. “It is understanding that [corporate] process and allowing enough time in the procurement and design development process.”
There are other ways of harnessing innovation, and while working on Thameslink, Young says her team learned to gather suppliers from different project phases into the same room “to share the lessons learned from the early design phase. What sort of sustainability issues were they looking at, how could that then be translated into the detailed design and construction?”
Counting certainly does count when talking about the S-word. But taking metrics on its own is not enough to drive change, warns Cathy Myatt, environment manager at Crossrail, who says it's vital to feed data back to suppliers. “It wasn’t just us as a client collecting the data and then self-congratulating ourselves and telling our board about it, but actually feeding it back down to our main suppliers to enable them to take action.”
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