Ask any manufacturer working in compliance or sustainability - collecting supplier data is always one of the biggest challenges they face. Lack of quality supplier data is the main source of delay for most product transparency and sustainability initiatives. We are not afraid to admit that supply chain data collection is difficult, even with competent tools or dedicated employees focused on the task.
Over the years we have observed how supply chain outreach is a challenge; this blog will dive into the nuances of why. If this is your daily lived experience and you’re more interested in solutions instead of the problem, check out this other blog.
Why is supply chain data collection so difficult? Like most things in supply chains, there's no black and white answer, read on to dive into the gray.
Lack of internal organization or centralized data management system
This is the most under emphasized and biggest culprit of slow or no supplier response. Most suppliers are focused on selling their products rather than tracking full composition data. Answering your request is not as simple as opening a file and filling in answers. Most suppliers don’t have composition data stored in a neat spreadsheet with links to test data or other certificates. They too need to go down the rabbit hole to find the answer to the questions you're asking.
Oftentimes, the person tasked with answering your survey is not a product expert. They first have to ask their internal team for answers, if that doesn’t deliver everything they need, then they need to reach out to their suppliers. This process is time intensive, complex and often not part of their job description.
Responsiveness is often linked to industry and company size. For instance, a large multi-national company tends to be slower and perhaps less responsive than a local company that depends much more on your business. A small company has fewer internal stakeholders to ask and probably has closer relationships with external partners. Conversely, a small company will have less persuasive power when asking a sub supplier for proprietary information. The same goes not only for your supplier for you and your company as well. If you work for a big dominant industry leader, your request might call more attention than a mom ‘n pop shop with smaller purchasing orders.
Not only does answering a survey take time, but most often the person charged with answering your request doesn't have that responsibility written into their job description. No one is dedicated to communicating product data to their customers. Answering product data requests is most often a loose task that lands on the desk of anyone from R&D to Sales to Account Management. That individual then has to make time on top of their other responsibilities to answer your questions. No matter how valid the request, easy the survey is to fulfill, or persistent you are in your reminders, the reality is that this task is not routine.
Proprietary formulations or data security
The biggest offender of withholding information are large coating companies, plastics and chemical formulators. Oftentimes, their entire business is based on that formulation you’re asking for. Would you want to share that information if you were in their shoes? Probably not without some serious convincing. Even if there are IP precautions and NDAs in place, those companies are hesitant to disclose any composition data beyond an SDS.
Misunderstandings (and confusion) if a supplier has never received a request like yours before.
Compliance regulations, sustainability standards and circularity initiatives change on a regular basis. Perhaps it was only a few years ago that all you needed to check your risk management boxes were SDSs. But now, because a regulation has changed or because your company values have evolved, you need more. Suppliers need to adapt and adjust to meet your demands but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains in the process. Communicating the ‘why’ behind the ask is a helpful way to overcome this barrier.
Lastly, if you are in the business of making and selling physical goods, the chances are that you are either buying or selling from someone in a different country. Globalization has developed the unimaginable feat of making shipping goods from one place to another relatively easy and affordable. In some cases, it’s more affordable to buy from overseas than from your own backyard. Although as English speakers we are privileged that many other countries teach our language to children at a young age, that’s not a ubiquitous truth. When doing international business, language and cultural barriers are real. The person on the receiving end of your survey might simply not understand what you’re asking.
Don’t worry, we won’t leave you hanging with just a list of problems. Read our list of recommendations for how to overcome these challenges. “Three Ways to Improve Supplier Response Rates.”