What to do when asked sustainability questions by your customers


Hi business owners and executives. It’s time to talk about something that might sound confusing and cumbersome, but doesn’t have to be: ESG and sustainability requirements. Yes, those questions you are starting to get from your largest customers. These questions involve environmental policies, labor and wages, tracking emissions and water, and they even ask about your procurement policies. ESG questions are often sent in an email to your business ahead of renewal, or in a self-assessment survey with a deadline fast approaching. “Do we really have to do this?” The answer is yes. If you ignore these, you risk losing these clients.

You’re not alone. According to a 2023 study from BDC, 94% of SMEs will be asked for sustainability and ESG policies and data by 2024. Large companies are starting to ask their supply chain to have an environmental policy, a human rights policy, and details on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). “Hey, are you being eco-friendly? What about your employees? And, oh, how’s your carbon footprint doing?” Don’t fret; we’ve got some tips to help you navigate this territory with a grin.

Why is having a sustainability policies and strategies important for your business?

First off, let’s clarify why your clients are suddenly becoming sustainability sheriffs. It’s all about being responsible corporate citizens. And – they’ve likely made public commitments to Net-Zero, carbon reduction, or even Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Good examples are General MotorsSmurfit Kappa, and Mercedes-Benz. They want to make sure their suppliers and partners aren’t wreaking havoc on the planet, exploiting employees, or being bad performers. 

Step 1: Initiate a Friendly Call with These Clients

Instead of diving into the deep end of sustainability despair, start by talking to your customers. Yes, literally pick up the phone, or jump on a Zoom call. This isn’t a test; it’s a conversation. Possibly they will throw a bunch of requirements at you, but don’t panic. Ask questions, take notes, and get on the same page as them. They might surprise you by saying, “Hey, you’re already doing great here, so you just need to tweak this and that.” 

Step 2: Collaborate and High-Five

Now comes the fun part—building those actions, practices, and policies. Invite your customers to be a part of the process. It’s like a creative workshop, but for environmental and human rights policies. Brainstorm ideas together, make sure it fits their standards, and before you know it, you’ve got policies and actions that not only meet their needs – but you have a stronger relationship with your client.

Step 3: Crack the Greenhouse Gas Code

Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions tracking can sound like an extremely stressful and lengthy process. Hold your lab coats. An initial assessment wont be too stressful. Talk to your customers about how they want you to track emissions. You might find out they’re into a specific method or standard – such as the GHG Protocol, or the SBTi. This is your chance to show you’re tracking emissions, setting reduction goals, and starting initiatives to get yourself there. Not only will you be carbon-neutral; you’ll also be carbon-savvy.

Step 4: Discover Your Hidden Green Gems

Before you dive headfirst into eco-projects, take a step back and assess what you’re already doing. Donating to a charity? Great. Already preventing waste? Terrific. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out that you’re a sustainability guru in some aspects. Discuss these hidden gems with your customers. It’s like finding a $20 bill in your old jeans.

Step 5: Keep the Sustainability Party Going

Sustainability isn’t a one-hit wonder; it’s more like a Netflix hit series. Commit to continuous improvement at your business. Keep the dialogue open with your customers about your future sustainability plans. Track process publicly on a new webpage on your corporate site. Or, create an annual sustainability report to share with your stakeholders. It would contain quantitative and qualitative data, s well as a few ad-hoc stories of your work and progress. Think of it as planning your next party; you want it to be even better than the last one. 

Why Bother?

Now, you might be wondering, “Why should I care about all this?” Well, there are plenty of good reasons:

  • Meet New Requirements to Outshine the Competition: Being a sustainability champ sets you apart from the crowd. You’re not just a business; you’re a responsible one.
  • Strengthen Those Bonds: Meeting your customers’ ESG requirements isn’t just about policies; it’s about trust. It’s like saying, “We heard you. We respect you,” and that’s how you make lasting relationships.
  • Attract, Attract, Attract: Businesses that care about sustainability have an easier time attracting employees, customers, investors and partners. It’s like a magnet.
  • Cut Costs: Believe it or not, sustainability initiatives can save you some serious moolah. Things like energy-efficient upgrades can make your wallet a little happier.
  • Get the Green Backing: Investors are increasingly into the whole ESG thing. So, if you want to attract those deep pockets, show them you’re on board with responsible practices.
  • Be the Hero of Your Story: Building a positive brand image isn’t just good for business; it feels pretty awesome too. It’s like being the hero in your own movie!
  • Dodge Regulatory Hurdles: As Canadian and American environmental and sustainability mandates and regulations get stricter on businesses, being ahead of the game with sustainability measures can save you from getting caught in red tape.

In a Nutshell

When your big clients start asking about sustainability, don’t break out in a cold sweat. Instead, pick up the phone, and have a chat with whoever is asking you for these things. Make it a collaborative exercise. It’s all about being a responsible, eco-friendly, and ethically sound business. If you’re feeling the pressure of ESG and sustainability demands, just remember: this is your chance to maintain your biggest customers, and shine in the business world. Embrace the challenge. You might find that it’s not as daunting as it seems.