For a business, the road to better environmental performance rides long and hard. It involves reducing waste, redesigning products, changing employee mind-sets, implementing new systems – and making sure that all of the businesses supporting your business are doing these things, too.
However, if a company knows how to build relationships, it’s in for a much smoother ride. Our sock manufacturer, Nester Hosiery, discovered this when they decided to drastically increase their sustainability efforts in 2008. Company growth, market trends and the founders’ belief in doing what’s right all contributed to the decision.
“We had seen that both our customers and suppliers were embracing sustainability more fully,” said Kelly Nester, Nester Hosiery’s president. “We needed focus there. Sustainability deserved the scale of attention that Nester had previously given other areas, like employee well-being and safety initiatives.”
The first thing they did was to hire a director of sustainability, Dave Petri. Petri contracted the services of North Carolina State University’s Industrial Extension Service to develop an environmental management system. He also built a partnership with nearby Duke University to work with graduate students. Together, they found ways to reduce energy, water and waste. To achieve Nester’s new landfill-waste diversion goals, Petri began working with a recycling company to identify additional opportunities that also had the potential to generate revenue.
The result was that, within a year, Nester’s new sustainability program had gone into overdrive. The company had implemented an environmental management system that follows ISO 14001 standards (though, their system is not yet certified). They had identified and tracked data on their three key sustainability areas – solid waste, energy and water – and found ways to reduce their impacts in those areas.
Part of Petri’s success – and the reason Kelly Nester considered him “the perfect candidate” – was his skill and experience building relationships. Nester Hosiery learned the value of relationships while growing its business over the years. The founders credit this core value for much of their success in turning their once small, struggling greige mill into a thriving, vertical and global sock manufacturing company in 15 years.
“Our primary business principle has always been to develop long-term partnerships with like-minded companies and people,” said Kelly Nester. Kelly has been with the company since the early greige-mill days and helped CEO and founder, Marty Nester, develop and implement this philosophy. “These partnerships pay off when you hit the bumps in the road, as all companies do.”
Nester’s relationships also helped the company to see the benefits of environmental initiatives even before they stepped up their own sustainability program. Patagonia and other brands, for example, were already implementing some of these initiatives, and introduced Nester to environmentally conscious materials, like wool and recycled polyester. They told Nester Hosiery management about practices at other factories that helped reduce waste, and, as a result, Nester Hosiery started recycling their cardboard, yarn and sock waste.
Petri said that early awareness and existing initiatives are helping his work progress a lot quicker and further. When he began tracking waste in 2010, he found that, in 2009, the company was already diverting 80 percent of its waste – cardboard, yarn and sock – from the landfill into recycling streams.
“If we continue to raise awareness and improve recycling and waste reduction efforts like we are, I’m confident that Nester Hosiery can become a Zero-Waste Manufacturer in the near future,” Petri said.
Nester Hosiery’s relationships continue to pay off. Their brand partners encouraged the company to become one of the first small manufacturers to join the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) Eco Working Group (EWG), which was created to help evaluate the environmental performance of suppliers and their products. As a result of their involvement with the OIA and the EWG, Dave Petri was also asked to join the OIA’s Sustainability Advisory Council.
One of the biggest rewards of Nester’s relationships could be yet to come as brands, like those that make up the OIA, increasingly ask suppliers for information about their sustainability performance. Nester is already beginning to see these rewards by doing just that.
“We thought we were going to have to tug our suppliers along, but some are already engaged,” Petri said. “When we approached our packaging supplier, Carolina Container, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that they were already taking steps towards becoming a more sustainable company.”
“This might be a rare exception,” he said. “But we’re hoping that the more we talk to our suppliers, the more we will be pleasantly surprised.”
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