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5 Ways to Encourage Sustainability Practices with Vendors

5 Ways to Encourage Sustainability Practices with Vendors

When it comes to sustainability, it’s not enough to commit random acts of greenness. Progressive companies integrate sustainability practices into their everyday business models and throughout their value chains. But many companies have found engaging sustainable suppliers challenging. How can you encourage your vendors to adopt sustainability practices?

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 southeastern United States 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, we’ve learned how to support forest landowners as they adopt sustainability practices and become certified sustainable suppliers. Here are the top five lessons we learned.

1. 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 and adopting sustainability practices does not require them to sell their wood to us or anyone else. The land remains their property, and 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 to pursue certification.

2. Close the loop.

Connect suppliers to customers and the product.

We directly connect landowners to senior executives from our biggest customers so that they can hear firsthand about the market demand for certified forest products. Many landowners want to know where their wood is going — whether it’s to copy paper, toilet paper or diapers — and they’re inspired when they realize that they’re the most important stakeholder in the value chain.

3. Make it easy.

Acknowledge their work, and keep certification simple.

The certification process is complicated, even for a Fortune 500 company with a department dedicated to navigating it. Now imagine how overwhelming it can be for a small landowner with a full-time job and a 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 work with already engage in sustainability practices; they simply need 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.

4. Be accountable.

Support and reward suppliers.

Certification can be financially and logistically demanding — common hurdles for small landowners. Through the Four States Timberland Owners Association, we mitigate landowners’ certification costs where possible. Our forest managers provide expertise on the ground, and we supply sample land plans. And through the FSTOA, we incentivize certified landowners by designating them as priority suppliers, which means we commit to purchase their wood first and regardless of demand.

5. Create a community.

Provide access to best practices and shared experiences.

Through the FSTOA, we provide a network for certified landowners to connect and share common challenges and best practices. We also arrange for undecided landowners to meet certified landowners so they can hear firsthand how certification can be achieved and maintained.

Moving Forward

At the end of the day, engaging suppliers who follow sustainability practices requires deep collaboration with our partners, which include customers as well as leading environmental organizations.

The World Wildlife Fund and our customers, including Procter & Gamble and Staples, have 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, sustainability 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.

Domtar has experienced great success following these five steps to help ensure our vendors embrace sustainability practices. It also ensures our access to a sustainable supply of wood fiber for our manufacturing system.

Yet the framework remains flexible enough to apply to nearly any vendor-customer relationship. Brands seeking to extend sustainability beyond their own doors should consider how similar processes can be implemented within their own operations.

Paige Goff, vice president of sustainability and business communications at Domtar, wrote this article. It was originally published in a slightly different form on, a learning, collaboration and commerce community of global sustainable business leaders.