The Mystery of Supplier Engagement

The Mystery of Supplier Engagement

by Kim van der Weerd created 2023-01-09T12:21:27+07:00
Reflections from March’s Supplier Meet-Up


Supplier Meet-ups are private off-the-record conversations open only to suppliers, held once per month. Each month, one supplier shares a specific challenge they’re facing while the rest of the group shares feedback and offers support. 

This month’s challenge was about how to better connect suppliers to each other within multistakeholder settings. The supplier in question leads decarbonization-related work for a multi-stakeholder initiative in which their company participates. The presenter set the stage by explaining that, when it comes to decarbonization, each geographic context will have its own unique challenges.  No single supplier can transform that context alone - hence the desire to bring suppliers together. This particular multistakeholder initiative recognizes this and is exploring how to best connect suppliers to each other. But practically, what does this look like? Is it an event? Is it a network? How should they go about bringing suppliers together to build context-specific and collective approaches? 

Someone responded: “it’s a bit of a chicken vs. egg dilemma. On the one hand, you are recognizing that needs and therefore solutions will look different in different places - so you don’t want to be too prescriptive. On the other hand, you still need a reason or an agenda to bring people together.”

At this comment, someone remarked: A practical starting point could be to define different goals and intentions for different contexts within which this multistakeholder initiative works. Another supplier emphasized the importance of leveraging existing infrastructure. For example, the Climate Summit in Bangladesh, Net Zero in Pakistan, or the Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka are all entities working on the issue of decarbonization in different production locations and might have a sense of which key actors to involve and which issues to put on the table. At this comment, someone else pointed out the need for national (or even provincial or industrial park-specific) decarbonization roadmaps for industry stakeholders to rally behind. Could creating these be the entry point? 

Figuring out the right agenda for the right place is one piece of the puzzle, but even if you have this piece figured out, who is the right target audience? One supplier pointed out that while there is a need for technical conversations on specific issues, there’s also a need for a higher-level conversation amongst supplier CEOs and CFOs which also isn’t really happening. Any supplier outreach or attempt to foster supplier networks requires figuring out how to reach both of these groups.

The conversation then shifted to the importance of relationships. There might be a practical goal or activity that brings suppliers together. But before you can begin to think about bringing people together around a practical objective, relationships are needed. Most of the group agreed that the various concrete collaboration projects coming out of these supplier meet-ups would not have been before the people in the group had gotten a chance to get to know each other. 

Though there seemed to be conceptual agreement on this point, the practicalities were less obvious. How does one go about finding suppliers? Where are the existing gathering places? And practically, how would one go about getting suppliers (both in sustainability roles and in C-suite roles) to attend an event?

“Something that would motivate me personally if I were approached about some kind of supplier peer network would be how it aligns with what I already have to do. It would be important to frame it as something that complements stuff I’m already having to do (as opposed to being a net extra). How is this going to contribute to making my life easier? Like, if you have a decarbonization target, this event is for you regardless of whether you engage with this specific multistakeholder initiative.”

At this point, there was a bit of back and forth about the role of brands in supporting supplier collaboration. On the one hand, all participants felt strongly that any attempt to bring suppliers together needed to be perceived by suppliers as supplier-led. On the other hand, one participant pointed out that brands can be useful for moving the needle and shaking things up. They are also uniquely positioned in terms of knowing which suppliers might be operating in similar locations and have shared goals. 

Someone reflected: “Not everything a brand does is necessarily bad, it’s more about the kind of role they take. Are they prescribing solutions or facilitating connections?” Another participant reluctantly shared: “as much as it pains me to say it, maybe this multistakeholder initiative should try to try to get brands it works with to help map out suppliers they know are working on this issue and help bring them together.”  The phrase “supplier-led, brand supported” seemed to resonate with the group.

My personal two cents: this month’s conversation speaks to a deeper issue.  The term “supplier” is relational. It’s a term that makes sense in the sustainable fashion universe because it's used relative to the term “brand” or “retailer”. It’s a term that flattens a very varied and diverse group into a singular monolith. It’s a term that makes sense if your theory of change is that transformation comes from the top.  My sense is that we’re collectively starting to embrace the idea that change doesn’t exclusively come from the top, but the sustainable fashion “infrastructure” that’s been built over the last 30 years was nonetheless premised on this idea. The question now is: how do we leverage an infrastructure premised on top-down solutions to support bottom-up and context-specific change?

Are you a supplier? Join our meet-ups! They’re open to any supplier– the only requirement is a willingness to come regularly. We are a small group interested in meaningful relationships.  Apply here.