April 14, 2024

The Buyer’s challenge

Karen Mackenzie spent over 30 years at British Airways, most recently as Head of Supply Chain. Here she shares first-hand the challenges airline buyers face when prioritising sustainable purchasing decisions

There are many internal pressures when “buying green”. Traditionally price has been a key consideration for buyers so the challenge comes when they see environmentally-friendly products cost more due to the expensive raw materials and higher manufacturing costs. Mindsets have to be reprogrammed.

The business case for sustainable choices needs to include longer term benefits, such as improving brand reputation, reducing exposure to legislative risk, savings from minimising waste sent to landfill. It is a delicate balance between sustainability and cost.

There is a dilemma around the buying of disposables versus rotable products. Historically, disposable products which contain plastics are lighter, cheaper and the preferred choice for operational ease. However, they have a calamitous effect on the environment and our ocean eco systems. The surge in SUP legislation is addressing this, but global interpretation is unclear, raising further challenges for a buyer.

Compare this with the use of more durable rotables, where airlines can design beautiful bespoke items. These products however generally weigh more meaning greater fuel burn, which conflicts with other eco-priorities such as the pledges many airlines have made to become net carbon zero by 2050! The washing process also uses energy and water, both of which need to be conserved. 

Key to getting decisions right is cradle-to-grave evaluation. Factors to consider are: the sourcing of raw materials – renewable or recycled; the use of ethical resources in production, and the weight – the lighter the better. But operational viability is also key; as is the manufacturing location and transportation distances and vehicle technology used; and packaging – creating minimal waste. Product disposal at the end of life also matters – is it really 100% biodegradable, or will it end up in landfill or incineration? Ideally we need to work towards products fitting into a circular economy where they can either be reused, reduced, or truly recycled. Buyers have to beware of greenwashing to ensure they are not misled!

Good decision-making

Creating a clear product specification before going to the market is key. Working collaboratively with suppliers on an up-front design will result in more eco-friendly products and allow vital testing before any new product is launched. 

Buyers do need to keep up-to-date with rapid changes in environmental legislation, not only to enhance their personal knowledge, but also to reduce the risk of non-compliance and its consequences. 

Buyers should also look out for a supplier’s commitment to sustainability. Ask to see Corporate Social Responsibility policies to ensure industry standards are being met and establish whether ISO 14001 or B Corp certifications are held. Appropriate sustainability clauses should be built into contracts along with measures and targets embedded into the deal to improve environmental performance. 

Due diligence site audits can help identify risks and an environmental questionnaire pre-contract award can really help good decision-making. 

Stakeholder pressure

The sustainability agenda used to sit on the periphery of buyers’ requirements. In the last decade, we have seen a rapid growth in its strategic importance, and now all stakeholders are more interested in ESG matters. 

Governments continue to legislate for environmental change and suppliers have had to completely rethink the way they operate, investing in new resources to comply with the tighter environmental mandate. 

We certainly have seen change: plastic cutlery has been replaced by bamboo and birchwood; there is boxed water instead of plastic bottles; edible coffee cups replacing paper; the list is endless and brings hope. 

Processes and products continue to evolve too with technological developments increasingly  there to help. The pre-order trend supports waste reduction and computer simulations can now model sustainability impacts for different products, so there is no reason to unwittingly make bad environmental decisions.  

There is still a way to go to be truly sustainable and that’s why I have joined the ASF (Aviation Sustainability Forum). Greater standardisation is required across the industry, perhaps even mandating the use of certain materials. The ASF is championing this alongside other associations, lobbying for regulatory change in this space.

We need to work together in the spirit of openness to bring about
large-scale change and ensure all the hard work of the
procurement cycle is not wasted!


sustainabilityforum.com; aviationsustainabilityforum.com