I interviewed Bonnie Nixon, Executive Director of the Sustainability Consortium.The Sustainability Consortium is working on providing a scalable system for doing Life Cycle Analysis. This is very beneficial to all of the retailers and B2B buyers who want to know why something is greener, compostable, organic, has x amount of recycled content or that it is socially responsible.The Sustainability Consortium aims to provide the tools to harmonize those standards.
What is the Sustainability Consortium?
The Sustainability Consortium is a consortium of many different entities. One of the initial catalysts for the consortium was an announcements that Walmart made back in the summer of 2009 that they were going to be creating and index. This index would be used for all of the products in their stores and all of their suppliers to ensure that products were getting greener and becoming more environmentally responsible.
This stirred quite a bit of interest from their large suppliers in almost every sector in the home and personal care sector: companies like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever. Interest also came from companies in the food beverage and ag sector such a Coke and Pepsi, General Mills, Tyson, Monsanto and Syngenta. They also had interest from electronics companies such as Dell and HP in the laptops space, Panasonic and LG in the television space, and also included the paper and packaging industry.
Many of these companies came together and shared with Walmart what they thought were possible and feasible and what wasn't possible and feasible in terms of the science and whether products could be compared one against the other.
Walmart took this information in and stepped back for a period of time. They approached the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University, which they had previous relationships with through the Walton family and where they were situated. They contracted with those universities to get the science.
Companies were essentially saying that the science doesn't exist for 2 reasons:
1. You don't speak about things like carbon, water and waste, or materials and biodiversity, and social and toxicity. We don't have a common vernacular. An analogy might be the calorie where we know what it means to put a certain number of calories in our bodies. However, we have no clue what it means to reduce our emissions by 100 grams. We don't speak that language and don't know what it means.
2. The consumer is extremely confused by all of the different labels. There are more than 600 labeling organizations and indices out there. There is a lot of confusion in the green marketplace and social responsibility marketplace.
The consortium was created to bring science to this. Today the Sustainability Consortium is administered out of those founding universities; Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas. Since that time the consortium has added a university based in the Hague in the Netherlands and the University of Manchester which is a strong partner of the Sustainability Consortium. They are also now in conversations with universities in Latin America and Asia so that they have solid bases in each major geographic region of the planet. They also have about 20 contracts out with many different universities.
The mission of the Sustainability Consortium is to drive a new generation of innovative products. The goal isn't just to minimize the bad. It is to create a space where innovators can come in and where our large scale billion dollar companies can come in to see there is a business case in making greener and more responsible products. This is the vision.
The mission is do this credibly (ie scientists and universities), transparently (making sure nothing is done in a black box where we can share with people where the data is coming from), and most importantly; how to be science based.
They will be looking to create a 501c3. The Sustainability Consortium is a non-profit and the money comes in through the university foundation.
What do supply chain professionals need to know about measuring and reporting on sustainability?
One of the major things that the Sustainability Consortium is calling the 'Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System” or SMRS is about measuring and recording products and services. The most comprehensive way to do that today, if you were to take the most state of the art science which exists out there today, is done by something called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
LCAs can be a lengthy and costly process to take on. A typical LCA of a laptop might take you a minimum of 1 to 2 years. You look at all stages of the product, from conception and design phase, right through to the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. You are also looking at the use phase. Then you are looking at the end of life phase. In an ideal scenario you would be implementing processes from cradle to cradle – looking at how you can build products into one another again.
What needs to be known about this is that it is still in various stages of evolution. The end of life stages are still being studied pretty extensively for quite a bit of product. We are not as advanced as we can be in some of science. We can be more advanced in terms of toxicity. A lot of the toxicity today is based in risk management approaches.
We have government entities and environmental groups coming up and saying we need to look more concretely or specifically at hazards and every potential carcinogen and the toxicity of every product. They are addressing things like social, all of the human rights, discrimination, fair wages, and how look at it in a scientific way so that we can have broad impacts across a whole region. For example, when we know the wages are below minimum wage in a certain area.
Finally, in biodiversity. This is where you look at things in scale, not just at one tree or product like a book. You are more interested in the million books in that warehouse or the million books you might be able to not print by using a Kindle. It is also looking at what this means in terms of a forest. Now you are looking at macro-scale over time.
The Sustainability Consortium believes that Life Cycle Assessment science is the right approach to this. However, some of the techniques are still under consideration and there hasn't been a consensus on them. Where there has been consensus is on the carbon, on how to measure water; although even water is under debate at times because people often go towards measuring supplies and don't take into account stress testing or scarcity testing. Supplies mean nothing if you happen to be in a water scarce area or in an arid climate.
Life Cycle Assessment is being used by the Sustainability Consortium. Given that they take a long time and are costly they have been looking at how to scale this process. The Sustainability Consortium is about credibility, transparency and being science based. They are also about scalability. This is probably the most significant thing they are trying to do to scale these techniques so that when you walk into a TESCO, Walmart, Best Buy or any of these stores you can see up to a million SKUs on the shelf. The Sustainability Consortium is looking at product categories. Instead of a ball point pen you are just looking at ink pens or writing instruments as a product category.
Looking at categories allows them to streamline and operationalize the process much more efficiently and effectively. No one has ever done this at this scale. They intend to release tools so that innovations can do LCAs in much shorter amounts of time for much less money. Companies will be able to operationalize it more within their companies. Ultimately, they aim to harmonize the standards so that apples can be compared to apples and oranges can be compared to oranges.
If you look at laptop X, if we know the impacts of this laptop in terms of metals, plastics, glass, toxics, rare earths, etc., then when someone else comes and compares their “green” laptop they will have to prove it against the benchmark laptops.
This is very beneficial to all of the retailers and B2B buyers who want to know why something is greener, compostable, organic, has x amount of recycled content or that it is socially responsible.
The Sustainability Consortium aims to provide the tools to harmonize those standards.
About Bonnie Nixon
Bonnie Nixon has been in the sustainability space for more than 30 years. She began in college where she went to Penn State at Three Mile Island. She was pre-law at the time and decided to move into environmental remediation when she saw how complex topics like that are. This was the time she did a bit of activism around nuclear power and more importantly she tried to educate herself on that type of power and the pros and cons of it. At the time there were not a lot of programs in the US on environmental remediation. As a result Bonnie studied in Europe in the Netherlands where they did a lot of progressive work on green plans and looking at how to approach things such as transportation, land use and water management – from a systematic perspective.
When Bonnie returned to the US she worked on the Boston Harbor cleanup project and headed up the PR and Environmental Remediation for the $6 billion construction project to stop the dumping of raw sewage into the Boston Harbor. From there she went to California and started a company called Public Affairs Management. For about 17 years she owned that company with about 5 other owners. They grew the company to about 65 people and worked almost entirely on very large infrastructure projects such as water, waste water, transportation, hazardous waste, utility projects, natural resource preservation and construction of facilities in the public realm.
Bonnie worked with the public sector, environmental groups, non-governmental organizations, community stakeholders, and businesses that were all looking to either get a project going or inhibit a project. Bonnie's job was to be the mediator and to look at whether there were win-wins for everyone involved and more importantly that the negotiations were fair, transparent and considered everyone's interests.
Then Bonnie worked for Hewlett Packard and first started as a contractor and then shifted as a full time employee. She designed a supply chain social and environmental responsibility program.
When she first came to HP they handed her a list of 100,000 suppliers and said they were concerned because they had begun to outsource manufacturing and much of their services. They needed help with dissecting the list and figuring out who was high risk, where was high risk, how to manage it, how to protect the brand, how to make morally responsible products, how to ensure there was no child labor making the products, etc. They were careful and wanted to make sure that not only the environmental issues were dealt with, but also the social and human rights and ethical considerations such as corruption, bribery and health & safety, etc.
Bonnie designed this program from the outset. She worked on the project for a good decade and helped to create what is called the electronic industry citizenry coalition, which is coalition of 60 of the largest electronics companies in the world who are using the same code of conduct, questionnaires, audit and reporting materials, IT systems, rating systems, training systems, capabilities building of suppliers all around the world in the electronics sector. The electronics sector has been very successful in harmonizing their standards and working to ensure that the supply chains are not feeling the brunt of many redundant questionnaires or different formats of requests coming from different customers, whether they be the government, B2B customers or consumers.
Bonnie did this for a number of years. After this she became the head of environmental sustainability for Hewlett Packard where she worked on the 5 to 10 year long term environmental strategy. Which was a real honor for Bonnie. The company moved into the number one position in many different indices and ratings systems.
Shortly Bonnie left Hewlett Packard she was offered her current position with the Sustainability Consortium.