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Supply Chain Talks | Proximus

Sofie Pierreux and Tom Simmillon

Value chains are hot topic, and rightfully so. When you know that carbon emissions from the supply chain are on average 11 times higher than what is emitted directly 'on-site', you understand our interest. That is why we asked Young Challenger and Circular Economy Manager at Proximus Tom Simmillon to shed his light on their Supplier Engagement Program. How did they get started, what makes it so important and what the plans for the future?

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Since a year and a half, Young Challenger Tom Simmillon has been shedding light over the activities of our network. A transition pioneer with a critical eye, he challenges us and our network at the Shift to go one step further in our efforts towards more sustainability. He consistently continues this effort in his position as Circular Economy Manager at Proximus. He stands at the cradle of a project that is on the must-do list of many companies today: the Supplier Engagement Programme - or how do you ensure that the climate objectives of your suppliers are at least as ambitious as yours?

How did you come to co-develop the Supplier Engagement Programme?

Tom: "I started at Proximus two years ago, as part of the Management Traineeship, known today as the Graduate Program. For my first assignment, I worked on circular economy in the network department. Supplier engagement was already a hot topic there at the time, for which there was no practical programme yet. I noticed that the Strategy Team was looking at supplier engagement from a high-level consultancy perspective, where the Procurement Department was mainly thinking in terms of contractual clauses. A bridge between both was needed and I was given the opportunity to fulfil that role. This led - not much later - to my current position as Programme Manager for Circular Economy and the global Supplier Engagement Programme, where there is always a clear link between circularity and suppliers. My role lies specifically in devising and continuously fine-tuning the strategy, as well as communication, with and between our internal departments and the suppliers."

"When you have the same end goal, it is easier to define the steps towards it together."

What was your personal objective when you started the development process?

Tom: "In a first phase, I wanted to create a better understanding of what those famous 'scope 3 - emissions' in the value chain actually are and what can be done concretely to bring them down. After all, it is not obvious to "just" buy 100% green products and services.

As the new project lead, it was also my job to prepare the implementation phase. In doing so, it was important to clearly state what the goals of such an Supplier Engagement Programme should be and then translate the strategy into KPIs to be taken into account by all departments. When talking about Scope 3, optimal data collection from your suppliers is indispensable. You also need to ensure that suppliers have the same targets. When you have the same end goal, it is easier to define the steps towards it together."

Who are your main suppliers, and what do you expect from them?

Tom: "On the one hand, there are the network contractors. They belong to the civil works construction sector. Then you have the suppliers of devices for mobile and fixed connection and the IT & network players (infrastructure and services). The latter two groups tend to be large international players - think a Nokia (mobile network) and Ericcson (software), for example - while network contractors tend to be local companies. These are very different conversations when you talk about supplier engagement.

All suppliers should initially calculate their CO2 emissions, just like we do, for emission scopes 1,2 and 3. Using this data, corresponding reduction targets should be set, with a strong preference for science-based targets."

How do you get started, knowing that your supply chain has around 4,000 suppliers?

Tom: "In a first phase, we will work with a subgroup of 150 suppliers who together make up just about 85% of our scope 3. For these suppliers, we identified who is their main sustainability officer and who is the business SPOC on our side. We then sent both a supplier engagement letter explaining what the objectives are for Proximus, why supplier engagement is crucial and what the expectations are. We also sent along a short survey in which suppliers can indicate where they currently stand. Based on this, we assign a 'maturity level' that we developed internally and together draw a path towards more, impactful climate action.

The entire group is also provided with a toolkit that can guide them through the steps. Where no sustainability SPOC is in place, we recommend engaging a consultant. In the next phase, we will select an even smaller subgroup with whom we will hold workshops."

How do you ensure that all employees at Proximus are co-engaged?

Tom: "It is important that all departments are aware of our net-zero targets and what every individual can do to help the company achieve them. Many purchasing decisions come from our business units. If they do not ask the right questions, sustainable procurement can never have the desired effect. In the end, we also engaged about five procurement officers to take on an ambassador role."

What response did you get at the management level?

Tom: "At C-level I scheduled half an hour in the various departments to inform about the plans and give an opportunity to ask questions. When it comes to contractual commitments with suppliers, an obvious question is: what will it cost? It is important to anticipate these and other questions and have an answer ready. It also helps to clarify everyone's role. After all, setting a net-zero target (which we did in 2022) comes with a responsibility. When you then come up with an action plan, the response is usually positive."

"If everyone starts pushing in the same direction, you get a chain reaction throughout the value chain, and that is exactly what we want."

Do you sometimes encounter resistance from colleagues and/or suppliers?

Tom: "A recurring roadblock is the reconciliation between 'finance' and 'sustainability' or 'non-finance'. At the start, a common question was: 'When does supplier engagement become a blocking factor'? Regulations such as CSRD, EU Taxonomy and investment dossiers with ever-increasing sustainability requirements mean that this reconciliation is now happening.

Our managers are also increasingly being asked the question themselves in discussions with suppliers, shareholders and customers. If everyone starts pushing in the same direction, you get a chain reaction throughout the value chain, and that is exactly what we want."

What were/are the main challenges in the development process of programme?

Tom: "It was not easy to prioritize among a huge group of suppliers. That is why we started with a test group of six well-known contractors. And that turned out very well. In fact, we were often told that we were not the first to ask and so it had already moved up the agenda. It sometimes comes down to starting out 'agile' and just starting the conversation with a very small subset, where you know you can sharpen a partnership."

"It is important to talk to as many people as possible about the importance of supplier engagement and what their role can be in the whole story."

What is your own motivation to drive this project?

Tom: "Supplier engagement for scope 3 is the topic where you can really make a difference and where you can get started right now. It is important to talk to as many people as possible about the importance of supplier engagement and what their role can be in the whole story. I also find it very enriching to repeatedly read up on supplier files from different industries and find out what they can do concretely, where their impact lies. And that is very motivating for a sustainability geek like myself."

What are the next steps?

Tom: "At Proximus, we work in strategy blocks of three years. Until 2025, the focus remains on the 150 companies we are currently working with. During that period, we want to make sure that all supplier engagement tools are available in the most accessible way possible, so that everyone can get started. The awareness is already there to a large extent. The question now is how to effectively engage everyone. That is why in the next step, we want to include the Supplier Engagement Programme in all performance and business review meetings and explain 'why we do it' and 'why suppliers are important'. At that stage, we will also have our new supplier code of conduct updated, along with some standard supplier engagement clauses. Finally, the electricity contract calls for 100% commitment to green energy. In other words, the next step revolves strongly around actual engagement.

At the same time, we are looking together with the business side how to organize workshops on effective reduction measures, specifically with regard to Proximus. In other words, everyone is thinking along."

What tip can you give to other companies looking to get started?

Tom: "Just get started. You don't need a 100% perfect approach from day one. Start with one or a few suppliers you know well to test the waters and then move on with what works. You don't need to start rejecting suppliers right away; stay inclusive. If you spend some time on it, you will find that a lot of people are already involved, recognize the added value and want to get started. And above all: "Be an advocate, wherever you go."

BACA: You for one, have been a very convincing supply chain advocate, Tom. Thanks for that!

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>> Do you want to read more about Tom’s take on sustainability at Proximus? Make sure to have a peek at his posts about :

>> Do you want to know more about supply chain engagement and how to get started? Get in touch with BACA coordinator