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How a Company Can Extend Its Sustainability Reach Upstream

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In the summer of 2011, after many years of smaller, hotel specific efforts to improve our purchases, Saunders Hotel Group officially launched its Sustainable Purchasing Policy (SPP) company-wide. It was comprehensive, it was detailed, it was specific while remaining widely applicable, and by the fall of 2011 it was most likely out of date.

In broad terms, our SPP is designed to assist purchasing managers to select better products. We fully understand that what is better today may be standard (hopefully) tomorrow. Therefore the SPP will continually evolve. As it stands now, the SPP provides excellent support and information on a variety of goods and services. However, the reality is that hotel managers won’t leaf through a thick stack detailing the policy at every purchase—so the first challenge became accessibility internally.

Giving people the tools they need to do their job is critical to the execution of any job but not everyone needs a Swiss Army knife; some jobs require the screwdriver, some the corkscrew, and others the file. Therefore, in an effort to ensure that managers who would be making daily decisions on products and services entering the hotel would be able to communicate effectively about our SPP, we created a one page, “at-a-glance” version. This is a clear and concise document, which we also made public on each hotel’s website, meant to cover the broad strokes of our policy. Our hope was that this step, making it clear and accessible, would ensure that each manager felt comfortable addressing this information with their suppliers.

Letter Drafted for Vendors

It wasn’t enough. It was merely a starting point, so we took this one step further. In an effort to overcome any apprehension managers may have discussing sustainability, we drafted a letter to all vendors. In it, we explained that we have a strong commitment to sustainability and we are consistently evaluating vendors and suppliers to identify like-minded companies. We made it clear that sustainability is a part of our selection criteria—along with price, functionality, appearance, lifecycle costs, and more.

Increasingly, as rising tides raise all ships (unfortunately literally as well as figuratively), creating more sustainable options for every product, the efforts a company makes towards sustainability will become a tiebreaker if not a deciding factor. In our letter, we indicated that we not only want to inform our vendors of this, but engage them. We solicited information on their products and any environmental or sustainable policies that they had and could share.

There are an ever-growing number of certifications and designations (one only needs to look to wine certifications to get lost in the labyrinth), but there are companies doing legitimately good and important things, making sustainable and low impact products that don’t have a certification to back it up. It will often take a deeper look, looking under the hood and kicking the tires, to identify whether their efforts are genuine and impactful, or paper-thin. Our effort to engage vendors was also an important step towards gathering this information.

Vendors Respond to Quote, Bid Requests

The full policy, the one-pager, and the vendor letter combined did not get the resounding response we hoped for. We are a small company; we don’t have the buying power to change the world all by ourselves. Large, national or multi-national vendors may just toss our letter into the circular file. On the other hand, every company listens when we speak with our dollars. When we are requesting quotes and bids, we have a vendor’s full attention. It is at this juncture that we have seen the best and most enthusiastic response.

“Tell me about your sustainability efforts.” “Talk to me about the green benefits of this product.” “Sustainability is important to us. Should we be looking at a different line or a different configuration to use less energy/water or create less waste?” “What can be done after the end of the useful life?” When vendors hear these questions at the same time as you’re asking about the price, the response is much more immediate. And we’ve been encouraged and excited about what we’ve been able to learn and the better decisions we’ve been able to make as a result of these questions.

In summary, we need the official policy, endorsed by our C-level executives. We need to have a more accessible version for a fast moving and always overworked management team. We should be proactive and communicate our values to our partners and potential partners. But we have to live up to all this by making decisions with our actual purchases. Staples will stock more 100 percent recycled content printer paper if it is flying off the shelves. And just imagine the economic pressures upstream as a result of that type of demand. . .

Ours is not the model for everyone. Some out there are big enough to make vendors act as a result of their pure purchasing power. And there are increasingly more sophisticated techniques to calculate the impact of any given product. There are some challenges that will continue to exist—should I get an apple from Chile that has a lower carbon footprint per ounce or one from an in-state farm that keeps a local family in business? Should I fly to a conference whose topic is “How to reduce my carbon footprint”? There is a lot of grey area that we continue to explore and work through. But the point of engagement that has the most impact, which is true for most negotiations, is when you have your wallet out of your pocket, and you are deciding if you are going to take the cash out and buy the product, or put it away and continue browsing.

Scot Hopps is Director of Sustainability, EcoLogical Solutions & Saunders Hotel Group.

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