With a strong emphasis on environmental responsibility, sustainability, people and education, Corby-based RS Group, a high service distributor of products and solutions to industrial customers, is laying strong foundations for an ethical future. The Manufacturer's editorial team popped by to find out more.
As an omni-channel product and solutions provider to industrial customers across design, build, maintenance and protection, RS is integral to many of the nation’s manufacturing sectors. Operating across Europe, Asia Pacific and North America, with a reach across almost all industry verticals, from processing, food and beverage, to defence, transport and the public sector, RS offers an ever-expanding range of 750,000+ in-stock industrial and electronics products from over 2,500 partner suppliers.
Not only that but in the last few years the company has established ‘For A Better World’, its 2030 ESG (environmental, social and governance) action plan to support a more sustainable and inclusive world. Emma Botfield, Managing Director, UK & Ireland at RS, picks up the story.
What trends are you seeing within the manufacturing industry?
EB: The challenges that manufacturers have been through – whether that be the pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine or the current cost of living crisis – have seen a great many companies rethink where they locate their production. We are therefore seeing manufacturing being moved to single, larger sites – meaning that smaller sites are being closed – while onshoring is helping to guard against the impact of those larger crises, now and in the future.
Manufacturers need to mitigate risk and not be caught short by the next global event, from a macro perspective. We know that we live in a very volatile, uncertain and ambiguous world, and that’s why organisations in the UK are looking to onshore and bring manufacturing back here. This can only be good for our economy and Great Britain. ESG is also a topic that manufacturers are starting to take very seriously, as is the issue of skills; not only in terms of attracting talent, but also how companies keep and retain the experience and knowledge they have.
Can you explain some of the key challenges RS is facing as a business?
RS has got a really resilient and strong supply chain. That, combined with a global reach, a clear strategy and investment in technology, has enabled us to emerge from the challenges of the pandemic and Brexit in a really strong place. For example, we have invested in a new distribution centre in North America and in Bad Hersfeld in Germany. We have had some challenges with our suppliers because there was a knock-on effect on raw materials due to the Ukraine and Russia war. Therefore, we’ve had to work hard with our strategic supplier partners to understand where their supply chain challenges are.
That did impact us; our lead times got longer, which meant customers were waiting longer for product, which in turn impacted their manufacturing processes. However, we’re all about reliability. So, it was vital to make sure that we could give honest and upfront updates to our customer base on the real situation regarding lead times or product shortages or using our technical expertise to offer alternatives. The shift to remote working was also a massive achievement by our IT department – people who, in many organisations, don’t get the credit that they deserve. But fundamentally, they helped us to continue operating as a business during lockdown.
As mentioned above, we have experienced some challenges around people. But RS employees have a resilience of their own and a can-do attitude. The culture that we have around the pride of our brand really helped us to be there for our customers. We launched a customer campaign during COVID named ‘By Your Side’. And this wasn’t just rhetoric; we really wanted to help our customers through what was an awful time. Because we deal with so many diverse vertical sectors, we were able to bring best practice from a variety of different industries and share it with other customers.
What role does digital technology play at RS?
It’s huge; we are a digital business and don’t shy away from that fact. We complement our digital business with a human touch, but we want to be at the leading edge from a technology point of view. Seventy percent of our revenue comes through digital platforms, so it’s really important that we are on the cusp of new technology to create an effortless customer experience.
That’s so important because we know that in every organisation, people are time poor, so we have to make that journey for our customers really seamless and as easy as possible, so they can focus on their core activities. We also translate that into what solutions can we provide to our customer base. With RS Industria, for example, we’re looking at how we can support customers in terms of predictive maintenance, and if they’re in a low maturity maintenance strategy, how we progress them along that journey. Technology is pivotal and fundamental to our business.
Has RS struggled to attract talent and if so, what is the company doing to address this issue?
One of our global goals for 2030 is championing education and innovation, so we work with lots of universities and the next generation of engineers. The aim is to get industry working with further education to offer an insight into manufacturing. There’s lots more that needs to happen but from an RS perspective, we don’t really struggle in that regard, because we are a digital business.
And we also have a great programme; because we are global, the opportunities for people are so vast and our range of business is so broad, that people have lots of career development opportunities. Organisations are also recognising the need for and importance of diversity, moving beyond a mere tick box exercise. The real value of a diverse workforce is in the different perspectives towards problem solving, and how you can achieve the desired results.
The workplace can be a very lonely place when no one looks like you, so putting the support mechanisms in place to create a safe environment for everyone to succeed and fulfil their potential is really important. Manufacturing needs to shout more about what the sector actually does and how brilliant careers within it can be – manufacturers are solving problems today that are going to make a better future tomorrow; there’s nothing more exciting than that.
Manufacturing should be a sexy and exciting profession that people are urging to move into. And the more role models we have, the more promotion there will be around the difference that people are making. I would encourage everyone to be a little louder and prouder of the profession that they’re in, to attract people to at least be intrigued and curious about working in the industry.
What does the future look like for RS?
Our CEO is always pushing us to think differently and be ambitious; going forward there will definitely be a push towards our value-added solutions. We want to be a reliable product distributor, but we also want to provide solutions to customer problems and act as a strategic partner. We’ll have more innovations in the solutions that we provide and accelerate our ESG initiatives. Again, we’ll work together with our customers in this space as we’re both aiming for the same outcomes and goals. Watch this space on solutions, acquisitions and on an increase in geographical footprint. These are very exciting times at RS
Making amazing happen
A key driver for RS is to develop a suite of products and solutions to help customers be more sustainable and achieve their ESG goals; priority solutions include sustainable operations, renewables, recycling and health and safety.
Paul Gething, Vice President of Start up Operations, ESG Solutions Team, RS Group said: “Sustainability is fundamental to us; it’s integral. We have a clear ESG strategy which is part of and integrated into our company’s purpose. One of the four pillars of that ESG strategy is around sustainability. And for us, that’s about making sustainability part of the fabric of how we do business – for our employees, customers, suppliers communities and investors.”
“ESG is really important to us,” Emma added. “The younger generation of talent that we’re looking to attract is very purpose-driven; they want to connect to an organisation that stands for something, so ESG initiatives can’t be merely a box ticking exercise.” As part of RS’ 2030 ESG action plan the company has set four global goals by 2030: Advancing Sustainability; Championing Education and Innovation; Empowering People; and Doing Business Responsibly, each with a robust set of supporting actions.
This approach supports six of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is aligned to leading external frameworks and standards. RS’ key priorities around the Advancing Sustainability pillar is reducing energy across its operations, facilities and sites. The company has achieved a 12% reduction in energy usage in 2022/23 from 2021/22. It has also led to a 36% reduction in energy related CO2e emissions across the group, supporting RS in its journey to net zero by 2030.
An initiative to decarbonise company buildings will also involve a closer look at solar, renewable energy, low carbon heating and insulation. “Our purpose of making amazing happen for a better world is lived out in terms of our four goals and we’re doing well,” Emma added. “Ninety-two percent of our electricity as a group comes from renewable sources. We’ve seen a 28% reduction in Scope 3 transport emissions intensity and a 58% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions since 2019/20.”
Paul added: “We’ve also just agreed a £3.7m investment to decarbonise our distribution centre in Beauvais, France. We’ve done lots of work around reducing the emissions associated with transportation, and making sure that we’re working with partners to establish the most effective way of distributing our products to customers so that we can minimise our carbon footprint.”
Balancing sustainability against other challenges
Paul explained that there have been both hurdles and tailwinds associated with ESG. Not least of the challenges has been around ESG-related engineering skills and technical expertise in what, for many, is a fledgling area. There have also been problems around supply chain and being able to bring in products from across different partners and suppliers.
On the positive side, there are now many more incentives for businesses and customers to be more sustainable, not least the recent spiralling energy costs. “We’ve also seen many more technological advances to help create more effective solutions to support some of those initiatives to help reduce CO2 emissions,” Paul added. “That includes tools such as the Internet of Things, sensors and digital twins that aid data capture and modelling and help customers understand where they’re using their energy and how they can reduce their emissions.”
Getting ready for ESG
RS is working hard to collaborate with suppliers and partners across the value chain to introduce new solutions and ways of working to distribute products more effectively. An example of these customer solutions include helping customers to understand and reduce their energy usage, find the right EV charging and solar products and recycling products such as PPE and cables.
Similarly, the company is working across the organisation with colleagues from different departments to speed up projects such as decarbonising buildings and bringing new, sustainable products into the Better World product range. In addition, RS is looking to grow its skills internally, and as such is creating new volunteering roles where people can get involved in ESG, grow their network, learn new skills and become supporters for what is a hugely significant topic.
A shifting landscape
There’s no doubt that ESG has increased dramatically in priority and now is a key component in business strategies, not least across RS. The company has ESG integrated into its strategy and is seeing greater importance attached to sustainability outside of the business, across stakeholders, including customers and suppliers. Vital to this is getting to grips with Scope 3 emissions. “We started initially by understanding the material parts of our business that have an impact on Scope 3,” Paul continued. “We looked at the hotspots and the larger emission areas and worked with the Green House Gas (GHG) Protocol and the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) to gather information on how we can target, measure and reduce our Scope 3 emissions.”
RS’ aim is to improve data modelling and analysis to enable the company to move away from a spend-based approach and towards activity-based modelling so that reductions can be clearly seen over time. “We started this process this year with the emissions associated with transporting our products, and that data has now been externally assured,” Paul added. For the next financial year RS’ focus will be on where the company source its products and how those products are used. “Again, it’ll be about improving data,” Paul said. “We are performing modelling to increase our understanding. We, like most businesses, are refining our approach. And we need to drive more sophisticated tools and robust data to help us reduce Scope 3 emissions.”
Greenwashing has become a commonly used term in the media; a deceptive presentation of products, services or organisational practices as being environmentally friendly. So much so that many companies have become reluctant to promote their own ESG initiatives and progress for fear of being accused of such practices – a term referred as greenhushing.
Undoubtedly, there is now far more scrutiny around ESG and sustainability, with Paul highlighting that businesses should approach ESG with the same level of diligence and control as they would over financial data. “Any statements and claims must be evidenced and data-based,” he said. “Data must be clear, robust and assured. If businesses can achieve that and build confidence and trust, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be making statements about sustainability and ESG performance. Over time that will offer customers more choice.
“One area of focus for us is our Better World products. We now have over 20,000 products on our website that we’ve identified as having at least one aspect that will help customers be more sustainable – perhaps to reduce energy or made from sustainable materials. We have a target of over 100,000 products to be available by 2024/25.”
“We have a responsibility and a goal to develop products and solutions,” Emma added. “But we also found that our suppliers all have a similar agenda, so partnership has been key to the development of this range. “Demand from customers for sustainable products is really important. But they need help; they can’t solve all the problems on their own. So they want to work with a reliable, trusted and ethical partner that can give assurances around the claims that they make.
“Customers know that when buying a product from RS’ Better World range, that the standards and certifications are real and can be verified. You’ve got to have trust when making a promise such as that.”
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