Top 5 Lessons on How to Engage Sustainable Suppliers
For corporations, the age of “random acts of greenness” is over. Progressive companies integrate sustainability into their everyday, core business models and throughout their value chains. It means being accountable for your entire value chain — but engaging sustainable suppliers has proven to be a challenge for many companies.
At Domtar, we design, manufacture and market pulp, paper, and personal care products that people rely on every day, from copy paper to baby diapers. Our customers come to us because their customers want responsibly sourced products. As a North American forest products company, our value chain often starts in the hands of hundreds of small landowners.
To meet the increasing demand for responsibly sourced wood, we established our pilot organization, The Four States Timberland Owners Association (FSTOA), to work with landowners in the southeast U.S. to certify their land according to the highest third-party environmental standards in the industry. Through this pilot, we’ve helped certify more than half a million acres of U.S. forestland. In the process, here’s what we learned about how to support forest landowners to become sustainable suppliers:
5. Be respectful & flexible: Recognize suppliers’ autonomy & ownership. Many landowners are wary of certification because they fear they’ll lose control of their land. They need to be reassured that no company or environmental group can tour their land uninvited, and that certifying the land does not require them to sell wood to us — or anyone. You must recognize that the land remains their property, and that the decision to certify and sell their resource is ultimately theirs. As a company, our role is to support them in the certification process. Suppliers need to know they’re in the driver’s seat in order to trust a company to be their partner and pursue certification.
4. Close the loop: Connect suppliers to customers and the product. We connect landowners directly with senior executives from our biggest customers, so they can hear firsthand about the market demand for certified forest products. Whether it’s copy paper, toilet paper, or diapers — many landowners want to know where their wood goes and are inspired when they realize they’re the most important stakeholder in the value chain.
3. Make it easy: Acknowledge work done & keep it simple. Certification is complicated — even for a Fortune 500 with a department dedicated to the process. Now imagine how overwhelming it is for a small landowner with a full-time job and family. We break down certification standards into digestible terms for landowners so that the complexity of the process doesn’t become the ultimate barrier to entry. Many of the landowners we engage are already sustainable forest managers — they simply need the support to cross the finish line to certification. Our forest managers show landowners what they’re already doing right and how close they are to meeting certification standards.
2. Be accountable: Support and reward suppliers. Certification can be financially and logistically demanding — common hurdles for small landowners. Through FSTOA, we financially support landowners’ certification costs where possible, deploy our forest managers to provide expertise on the ground and supply sample land plans. Through FSTOA we’ve also incentivized certified landowners by designating them as priority suppliers, where we commit to take their wood first and regardless of demand.
1. Create a community: Provide access to best practices & shared experiences.Through FSTOA, we provide a network for fellow certified landowners to connect and share common challenges and best practices. We also bring undecided landowners in to meet certified landowners to hear firsthand how certification can be achieved and maintained.
Moving forward: Collaboration & scaling up the model
At the end of the day, engaging sustainable suppliers requires deep collaboration with our partners: customers, as well as leading environmental organizations. World Wildlife Fund and customers including Procter & Gamble and Staples have all worked closely with us on this landowner pilot program. And last year, we partnered with the Rainforest Alliance to support the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance, which is focused on bringing landowners, forest product companies, best practices and tools together for the health and productivity of our Southeastern forests.
We take a hands-on, grassroots approach to supplier engagement — working with one supplier at a time. It’s not easy. It takes time. But it works. It’s an effective strategy, but we recognize that a broader swath of landowners must be reached. That’s why our future efforts will focus on working with our partners to scale up the model to replicate success.