World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

You’ve Created a Sustainable Procurement Policy. Now What?

  • Date: 25 February 2021
  • Author: David Williams, Sustainability Manager, Williams-Sonoma, Inc.

At Williams-Sonoma, Inc., wood furniture makes up a significant portion of our merchandise, and procuring wood from sustainable sources has been a top priority for our company for years. Our goal is to make products that our customers can feel good about. To accomplish this goal, we consider all aspects of product development and manufacturing to ensure we source materials responsibly and have a positive environmental and social impact throughout our supply chain.

Last fall, we were honored as an industry leader in responsible wood procurement by the Wood Furniture Scorecard. This was particularly gratifying because the work underlying our score wasn’t easy.

Picture of David Williams

David Williams, Sustainability Manager, Williams-Sonoma, Inc.

When I first joined the newly formed Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Sustainable Development department in 2008, I was tasked with understanding our wood supply chain to establish a responsible wood-sourcing program. I started by reaching out to experts and joined World Wildlife Fund’s Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN). I leaned heavily on WWF for guidance. Shortly after, WWF invited me on West Coast forest tours, and I observed Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) forest management certification and chain-of-custody audits. I also traveled with WWF internationally to witness forest management in different contexts. I saw firsthand that FSC standards had the best overall outcomes from a forest health and biodiversity standpoint. They also required a great deal of engagement with local communities and focused on creating social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders.

When we first launched our wood procurement policy in 2008, we developed it with input from multiple stakeholders, including WWF’s GFTN. Our policy aimed to eliminate illegally logged wood, and we required that all wood purchases be traceable back to the forest of origin through chain-of-custody documentation. We also committed to increasing our volumes of credibly certified wood with a preference for FSC. We launched our wood policy publicly and shared it throughout our supply chain. Next, we asked our strategic manufacturing partners to become FSC certified, and many of them did. Then we waited for them to start producing FSC-certified furniture collections. We waited. We kept waiting.

We soon realized publishing a policy was important, but it was just the first step. Our top vendors were certified, but when it came to buying the FSC-certified products they were able to offer, increased costs posed a challenge. Internally, we hadn’t aligned our policy and requirements across the organization. Our merchants’ and sourcing teams’ performance was evaluated on business metrics, and they weren’t incentivized to implement sustainability objectives. Sure, they were asking our manufacturers for FSC, but it was after the fact, and price premiums posed a disincentive. Our responsibly sourced wood volumes stagnated, and we knew we had to try something different. We realized sustainability is not something you bolt on the end of the process. We had to lead with sustainability.

From these learnings, we created a “good, better, and best” framework for wood procurement and established a risk-based approach to wood sourcing. This new framework recognizes wood from low-risk and verified legal sources as good. Wood from reclaimed, recycled, and certain plantation sources not associated with deforestation is considered better. And FSC-certified wood is considered best. This new framework allows us to meet suppliers where they are and focus on stepwise improvements.

In 2015, we set a public-facing goal to achieve 50% responsibly sourced wood in our furniture products by 2021. This was a game changer for us. Sustainability is now a performance metric for all merchant and sourcing teams, and they are incentivized to help meet our public target. Our goal also showed our supply chain partners that we are serious about sustainability. We have the benefit of having eight brands within our portfolio, and we leverage our volumes to get sharper pricing. But we also make commitments to our suppliers by developing whole FSC-certified furniture collections and building them up over time. These process improvements have started to pay off. We’ve seen consistent increases in our responsibly sourced wood volumes year over year. As of our 2019 Corporate Responsibility Report, we’ve nearly met our goal at 47%.

Responsible sourcing is not for the faint of heart. It requires a long-term commitment, people, resources, and money. Our Sustainable Development team started with just two people in San Francisco, California, and is now a group of global experts across our social and environmental programs. We have a dedicated staff who work directly with our wood suppliers to collect, review, and verify thousands of chain-of-custody documents each year. But responsible sourcing also means taking the time for self-reflection and being willing to learn from your mistakes. Sustainability is not a sprint but a marathon. And the goal is not a finish line but constant improvement.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of WWF.