Procurement accounts for up to 80 per cent of some companies’ budgets. To Naomi Vowels and Frances Atkins, founders of a start-up that screens the sustainability credentials of suppliers, that figure represents a major opportunity to do good.
When the Australian Securities and Investments Commission launched its first “greenwashing” lawsuit in February, accusing a major superannuation fund of making misleading statements about investment options, it sent a clear signal to companies about the need to back up sustainability claims and targets with solid data and actions.
And this related to more than their own claims and targets. Because purchasing represents a large chunk of expenditure, businesses are increasingly recognising that meaningful scrutiny of their own performance means placing their suppliers under the spotlight, too. But given the plethora of available accreditations, certifications and initiatives relating to everything from carbon emissions and recycling to diversity and inclusion, responsible corporate players can find it challenging to carve a path through the sustainability jungle.
This is the context that led to the creation of givvable, an AI-powered platform devised by sisters Naomi Vowels and Frances Atkins which can screen and monitor the sustainability attributes of many thousands of suppliers in the space of seconds – and which also enables companies to assess how those attributes align with and advance their own goals and targets.
The technology grew out of a number of developments which the pair had observed, including the growing ubiquity of ESG (environmental, social and governance) considerations, the increasing desire among Australian companies to engage with Indigenous and women-led businesses, and the pressure on businesses to calculate carbon emissions in their supply chains.
Vowels, a former Australian diplomat who also worked for a private Swiss bank, and Atkins, a former financial services lawyer and investment banker, identified a “big information gap” – but also a big opportunity. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if social and other impacts could pervade a whole organisation as it went about its normal business?” recalls Vowels.
Out of the mouths of babes
The seed of that idea lay in a previous start-up by the sisters: Red Shoe Stories, customisable picture books in which children could choose the protagonist’s name, hairstyle, complexion and shoe colour, among other characteristics. Bulk orders had been placed by the likes of Bellamy’s Organic, which used the books in its baby food marketing campaigns. And since Red Shoe Stories donated a book to a global literacy charity for every copy sold, bulk orders meant bulk impact.
“What we thought was cool was that this was happening through the marketing department of these companies, rather than CSR [corporate social responsibility] or philanthropy,” says Vowels. “And we thought, wouldn’t it be great if you could do that on a larger scale – if you could build impact into day-to-day business activities, such as procurement?”
While they were both on maternity leave, she and Atkins hatched givvable, which has accumulated clients in Europe and Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand since launching mid-last year. Customers include some big names, such as Microsoft, Bupa and Moët Hennessy.
Those signing up have different motivations. Large enterprises might be legally required to ensure that, for instance, their supply chains are not tainted by modern slavery. Internal reporting requirements – and/or pressure from employees, investors or customers – spur some companies to track their suppliers’ diversity policies or engagement with social purpose businesses. Some believe that burnishing their ESG bona fides will give them a competitive edge; others just want to do the right thing.
Among the givvable platform’s features is what its founders believe is the largest searchable global dataset of verified sustainable suppliers – more than 350,000 in all. Within that database, subscribers can search for – for example – suppliers with a science-based emissions target, or whose objectives accord with certain UN Sustainable Development Goals.
givvable also works with suppliers, providing a portal where they can register and undertake learning modules, and recommending actions to enhance their sustainability status.
A cash injection – and some equally valuable advice
In early 2022, the givvable team secured, through the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme, an Accelerating Commercialisation grant of $557,425. Among other things, Vowels says, it enabled them to “build out the search platform and build out our API [application programming interface], so we could integrate with data partners like [multinational software company] SAP”.
She adds: “The funding was great, but the Accelerating Commercialisation process was about a lot more than that. It gives you access to a network of people that can help you with all kinds of advice and support.”
The sisters’ initial i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator, Usman Iftikhar, provided connections in the social impact space and within government departments. They were uncertain what to charge for the new product; he put them in touch with pricing experts. Another Commercialisation Facilitator from i4 Connect, Elizabeth Kaelin, offered worthwhile guidance on providing different versions of the product for pro and “lite” clients. Overall, the process proved “quite fundamental” to getting the company to where it is today, says Vowels. “It’s been incredibly helpful, both in terms of the funding and the support networks.”
Kaelin says givvable was an ideal candidate for the Accelerating Commercialisation service. “The team was very strong in terms of managerial capability,” she says. “Naomi and Frances had a very cohesive, very synchronised working relationship. They had a clear focus on what they wanted to do and how they were going to achieve it, and they had a novel idea with the potential to have an impact on the wider world.”
The i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitators, says Kaelin, are “highly skilled commercialisation professionals, engaged by the government yet with no skin in the game, so we’re able to give incredibly impartial and incisive guidance and support to entrepreneurs”.
She adds: “Most of us have had our own companies, so we understand the challenges that founders face. And because we’re removed from their day-to-day operations, we can be almost like a third eye, looking at their business holistically and giving an eagle’s eye view over the entire company.”