OPINION20 May 2024

Sustainability is becoming an essential part of procurement

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More clients are starting to assess the sustainability of research proposals, but Annabelle Truscott says it’s about more than just offsetting carbon.

small wooden cubes with green tick marks

Sustainability has become imperative in all walks of life. A hot topic globally, sustainability in the procurement process is no exception. When clients decide who to award research contracts to, an agency’s green credentials, including its data on GHG, net zero and carbon reduction, are increasingly, and rightly, scrutinised.

Agencies form an important part of the client supply chain. We increasingly observe that some clients prioritise agencies that are able to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability with detailed data. Astonishingly, the supply chains that researchers are part of can account for much more than half a client’s carbon footprint. For example, the BBC’s supply chain accounts for 68% of its carbon emissions, according to its FY baseline emission proportions 2019-2020.

Shining a spotlight on sustainability offers, in turn, a real opportunity for forward-thinking, planet-wise agencies to shine. A demonstrable commitment can enhance brand reputation, secure contracts, mitigate risk and ultimately drive long-term profitability. Partnering with like-minded agencies helps clients to align their suppliers with their corporate responsibility goals, as well as providing a mutually rewarding and satisfying working relationship. Working together with a combined and aligned goal increases the likelihood of achieving these crucial targets.

Many benefits arise from working in partnership with clients as an extension of their own team. Sustainability targets tend to be long-term commitments. When clients who take sustainability seriously find like-minded agencies, they are more likely to establish an ongoing relationship with them. In turn, the security of future revenues enables the agency to produce better research. Put simply, genuine collaboration on sustainability can help establish client-agency partnerships and enable them to flourish in a mutually beneficial way.

Some clients’ sustainability focus stems from environmental regulations originally imposed by official bodies including governments. Such organisations must embed sustainability in every aspect of their day-to-day operation. In this context, research agencies that can demonstrate sustainability as part of their DNA, via innovation, intelligent practice and people-positive leadership are natural partners. If an agency already embeds sustainability in its thinking, it makes sense that it can also provide insight to help its clients stay ahead of evolving trends and preferences.

In practical terms, many of us have already made changes that have had, and continue to have, a positive sustainable impact:

  • Budget and timeline requirements are typically tightening, making paper-based quantitative data-collection methods and their associated carbon footprints redundant or greatly reduced
  • Post-Covid, a lot of qualitative field work and meetings are now done via Teams, saving on travel and reducing carbon loss. The BBC says that 12% of its carbon footprint currently comes from business travel, for example. Such partners will likely want to see reduction commitments from the agencies they use.

However, genuine sustainability can cost more. Commitment to ethical considerations – from fair labour and safe working conditions to fair wages – might conceivably lose proposals; but increasingly, and despite squeezed budgets, clients understand the true value of an ethical partner.

Taking a sustainable approach is likely to involve innovation and new technologies. Switching to sustainable processes and reducing emissions by a variety of means often involves big data analytics and AI.

The agency that works towards a nature-positive, people-positive and net-zero environment is likely to do better than one that only uses ‘carbon offsetting’. This methodology has come under increasing scrutiny, variously described as a ‘cop-out’ or ‘green washing,’ while in 2020, Friends of the Earth robustly referred to it as ‘a con’.

Clients need to green their supply chains, and procurement is an important place where they want to see reduced carbon-emissions, sustainability considerations woven into every element of business, and transparency, collaboration and innovation. Responsible companies are committed to this form of future-proofing, helping to protect the planet for future generations. The increasing importance of sustainability in the procurement process is not just a trend, it is an essential focus.

Red C Research is proud to have signed the MRS Net Zero Pledge, which it’s also helping to update with guidance on how to achieve its four principles. We encourage any agency that has not yet signed the pledge to join us.

Annabelle Truscott is director at Red C Research