Ethical | Managing Supplier Relationships

This past week I received a message from a friend about how one of her suppliers wanted to share her bag prototypes on his social media. She was asking a group of us for advice and was not sure the best way to go about the situation. To be honest, everyone had slightly this truly depends on you and where you want to go with your brand and how you want to manage the supplier relationship.

Everyone who was in this group gave wonderful advice from contracts, to exclusive rights, to various levels of agreements terms. Overall, the common theme was there needing to be an agreement, of some sort, in place.

Promise me now, if you are in the beginning stages of working with an ethical supplier especially overseas, that you set your terms from the beginning because these relationships can get messy fast if expectations are not put forth in the beginning.

When picking a new supplier or even managing an existing one, I always want to check in on four main things:

1. Understanding the Nature of the Relationship
2. Shared Values
3. Reducing Complexity and Risk
4. Staying in Control of the Relationship

Understanding the Nature of the Relationship
This is where I make many “gut decisions”. If from the beginning I see or feel uneasy then I do not move forward with the supplier, but my biggest takeaway here is to start the relationship on the same terms. Understand what you are receiving for your purchase and establish an understanding of how you work as well as how they work. When you are partnering among various cultures, you need to make sure you are on the same page with pricing, deadlines and regulations. You do not want to over promise and at the same time, you do not want them telling you they will meet a deadline because they do not want to lose your business, when in reality they need two more extra months to reach the quantity you are requesting for. Have a clear understanding of the relationship and how you might define it. Keep boundaries, have mutual respect and create expectations for one another. The clearer you are in the beginning then the better off you will be in the long run. Do the hard work on the front end – you will thank yourself.

Shared Value
The bottom line is do not partner with someone who does not share your values. This is more than just sharing ethical standards. If you feel there is underlying corruption or unexplained transactions happening or again, red flag “gut check” occurring then walk away. They might do beautiful work and it even may be connecting to an amazing cause, but understand your values and stand firm in them. Do not sway. Be authentic and find another supplier who walks with you in those values and standards that best represent you and your brand.

Reducing Complexity and Risk
There will always be risk involved when creating an ethical business and working with suppliers from all over the world. I am a bit lucky because all my suppliers are in Kenya or within the East African region. Considering my home is Kenya, my suppliers are in my backyard compared to what many of you are working with. I know a majority of you manage relationships solely through email and have to navigate cultural language barriers, time differences and other complex situations. My biggest advice is to try to make it as simple of a process as you can. If you see that your supplier just needs a bit of direction or systems protocol development and you want to aid them in that, then go for it! But also, know how to navigate that because you do not want to step over any boundaries of the ‘nature of your relationship’. If from the beginning, you feel what they need is a bit out of line of your relationship you established or something above your “paygrade” or knowledge, then maybe you pursue another supplier option.

Building an ethical brand and teaching others about social consumerism is a lot of work and there will be plenty of moments that you have to step out of your comfort zone. In the end, you just need to know your boundaries to avoid burnout and create a path for yourself that will allow for you to be successful. You will only succeed in being a part of the ethical movement and educating others if your brand is successful, so do not let a supplier relationship take you away from a larger movement at hand. Overall, this road is not easy, but you can reduce the complexity and risk by finding out what works for you.

My phrase of 2020 is ‘you do you’, so you do just that. Find your groove.

Staying in Control of the Relationship
You have to stay in control of the supplier relationship and the easiest way to do this is by setting up contracts or a service agreement from the very beginning. Everybody has  different agreements that involve ethics, rights to designs, deadlines, site visits, etc. You cater your agreement to your needs and establish something you are comfortable with. An official agreement will make sure you are aligned as a buyer-supplier relationship and cut
out any ambiguous jargon.

Along with a formal agreement, you can create quarterly surveys or reports to be conducted, so you are keeping up with ethical standards and value propositions being met. Again, this is your relationship and you want to make sure you set clear and precise expectations from the beginning. It will allow for less headaches in the future and create more ease of transactions or any transitions that might have to take place if there is a formal document to refer to. Once you have some systems in place, I promise this will create a smoother process for both you and your supplier.

From one ethical buyer to another – ‘you do you’,

Leave a Reply