Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of practicing corporate social responsibility, which can range from a boost in profits to always-welcome good publicity.

It stands to logic then that the same sorts of ideals shouldn't stop with your products, services, and operations. Corporate responsibility should also play a role in your supply chain. And what's more, you should let your customers know that it does.

Clean Up the Supply Chain and Tell Your Customers

Thomas Leppelt, Kai Foersti, and Evi Harmann, three academics in Germany, have the data to prove it. Their study, "Corporate Social Responsibility in Buyer-Supplier Relationships," was published this month in the German Academic Association for Business Research.

Their five-company case study picked up on previous research showing customers respond to marketing messages about a company's responsible practices. They found that the right message about a responsible supply chain can also help lift a brand's reputation. So, the authors suggest, it is worth letting your customers know.

The authors say marketing a responsible supply chain will best benefit a brand if the message follows these rules:

  1. The message stresses facts: Just saying your supply chain is environmentally friendly, for instance, isn't enough. Explain how it's green, specifically, by mentioning things like tightened freight loads or the certifications of your suppliers. A rule of thumb from the authors: Your marketing message should drive from supply chain purchasing decisions. And it should go without saying, but keep your message in step with your actual practices.
  2. Know who caresIn some cases, your direct customers might not really care all that much about your CSR policies. But marketing your responsible supply chain can still have benefits, even if you take your message further downstream than your customers. For example, a B2B company could target its customers' customers with messaging about its clean supply chain, which still ultimately strengthens your reputation in the larger ecosystem.
  3. It's a learning opportunity: Marketing your supply chain as social responsible might not be the kind of thing for a TV or print ad. Rather, consider it an opportunity to teach your customers or other stakeholders about how you're ensuring a conscious supply chain through education-oriented marketing initiatives, such as seminars and online forums. This allows you not only to show off what a great corporate citizen you are, but ensures buyers that you are protecting their reputation through your supply chain efforts in a way that a 30-second TV spot can't.

While U.S. business still lag behind Europe in terms of environmental and other responsible practices, supply chain consultant Roy Strauss of New Jersey-based Strauss Consulting Group says supply chain corporate respobsibility has resonance stateside. Companies, he says, are finding savings by modifying their transportation models and choosing greener alternatives throughout their operations.

And--more to the study's point--Strauss says a responsible supply chain is all the more important in the digital era, in which customers can reward socially responsible companies and watchdog groups can easily spread word about poor practices in the supply chain. To that end, it might be worth considering the CSR supply chain not just from a marketing perspective but also as a public relations tactic.