Have you asked your vendors what they can do for sustainability?

Organizations that focus on sustainability in the workplace regularly look for ways to reduce energy use and enhance employee health. However, if your company does not depend on the kind of global/national supply chains that Walmart and other large corporations do, it’s easy to overlook sustainability opportunities and forget to ask the right questions of your vendors. Being a sustainability champion means using your sphere of influence to go beyond your organization’s walls and influence others to perform better too.

At the Dec. 3 Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council conference, Dr. Jeff Thompson, CEO of Gundersen Health System, gave the final keynote talk. Gundersen is known for its leadership in sustainability, and its hospitals and clinics recently became the first in the country to be energy-independent.

So when Gundersen set out to build its newest hospital — the Legacy Building — it wanted to be as energy-efficient as possible. The average hospital’s annual energy use is 235 kBtu/sq.ft. During the planning process for the new facility, Thompson asked the architects about their energy-use plan. They responded that they were aiming for the low 200s. Thompson wanted to push the envelope and set the goal at 115. The architects said that would be impossible.

Instead of settling for average, the CEO pressed the team to achieve that goal. He told the architects that if they couldn’t do it, he’d find someone who could. About a year after opening, the facility is now operating at around 120 kBtu/sq.ft. According to Thompson, the lesson to be drawn from that experience is, “Don’t believe that just because it hasn’t been done, you can’t do it.”

You don’t have to be a CEO to demand more from your vendors. As one of its 2013 MPower Business Champions projects, The Plaza Tavern — Madison’s first “eco-dive bar” — wanted to increase its energy efficiency. Its focus narrowed to lighting retrofits, which included replacing its fluorescent lights with LEDs and installing occupancy sensors in its walk-in coolers.



The bar’s improvements didn’t stop there: All the beer signs displayed on the premises must use LED lights instead of neon. Now it’s up to the vendors to step up to the task so their signs can be seen by thirsty patrons.

It’s also important for businesses to ask the right questions of their vendors. MPower alumni and Sustainable Business Network member Sergenian’s Floor Coverings is known for its Carpet Reclamation Drop-Off Program, which has diverted more than 6.4 million pounds of carpet and padding from local landfills and provided environmentally friendly flooring options.

In the past, when some carpet companies found that their waste haulers would not accept large cardboard rolls for recycling, they would just throw up their hands and concede defeat. However, Sergenian’s decided to pick up the phone and start a conversation with its vendor to find a solution. Turns out it was the length of the cardboard rolls that was the issue. So by simply cutting the rolls in half, the company was able to get its hauler to take the cardboard for recycling, diverting even more waste.

How have you leveraged your vendor and supply-chain relationships to improve your business’s sustainability? Share your experiences in the comments. Together we can build our local best practices library.

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