I interviewed Bonnie Nixon who discussed Supply Chain Sustainability.
It's great to speak with you today, Bonnie. Can you first provide a brief background of yourself?
Sure. Nice to speak with you as well, Dustin. Thanks for having me. Sure. I started working on environmental things very early on in my career. I actually went to Penn State during Three Mile Island, and that got me interested in environmental things.And then I worked on the Boston Harbor Clearnup Project. Soon after I moved to San Francisco and started Environmental Consultancy, communications and planning consultancy, where I worked on a lot of large-scale water, wastewater, transportation, hazardous waste, power, and energy types of projects.
It was at point I was tapped on the shoulder to help Hewlett Packard develop their supply chain, social and environmental responsibility program from the outset. And this dates to about 1997, '98. If you recall, the Nike incident that happened in ‘96 where they were attacked from children or child labor and sweatshop labor in some of their factories.And so that inspired the vice president that I was working for at Hewlett Packard to think about a program as they were beginning to globalize and move into Mexico and China with their manufacturing. And he wanted to make sure that the standards were not only in place and the tools were there for the partners and the suppliers. But he also wanted to make sure that they were enforced and that, more importantly, that we looked at our suppliers as partners in much the same way —when you go back to TQM, Total Quality Management, or ISO, or LEAN, or Six Sigma — when you go into the supply chains, and you really invest in a partnership.
And I think from the outset, we took an approach where we wanted to make sure that sustainability was something that they understood what it entailed — that it looked at water, wastewater, energy from the environmental perspective, that it looked at health and safety, and that it looked at human rights and labor practices, and then also ethical operations and ethical practices.And so that's all of the topics that are embedded within a good sustainability program.
And when you're proliferating it throughout a very large and very complex supply chain, each piece was $50 billion that they were purchasing of product around the world, then it meant that we were really looking at how these things differed among other cultures and how we could support and invest in these partners.
So, that was how I came into this field. And I did that for the better part of a decade when I then become the head of global sustainability and really helped the company become number one in sustainability and look at not just how they were making their products, but what materials were being used in their products, and how to start looking at things like cradle to cradle and recycling and getting the toxics and things like that out of plastics, and looking at the chemical makeup of things.
So, that's what I did during the period of time I was at HP. I was then brought into the Sustainability Consortium, which was a large initiative started by Wal-Mart, where they brought in their largest suppliers around the world, and they were looking at life cycle assessments of all of the product categories that they held within their stores.
So, if you look at someone like a Wal-Mart, they have a million SKUs. And Amazon has a billion SKUs. So, but even of that million SKUs, you've probably got — I don't know — somewhere on the order of seven, eight, nine hundred product categories, different categories. And what the challenge that we faced was, how can we provide the buyers, the procurement staff, with some sort of analysis on what conversations to have with the supply chain. Those included targets, metrics, and goals for how to minimize the environmental footprint of different product categories.
And also a social footprint to be looking at things [inaudible 00:05:23] minerals and the impacts that can have in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. And so, trace ability and supply chain social responsibility are also equally important.
I did that project for about a year, and then I joined Matte l where I worked for a period of time on their agreements with Rainforest Alliance on getting [inaudible 00:05:57] into their wood and paper products and all their packaging and looking at getting PVC out of their packaging and different chemicals.
And so, next I'll be joining a company called Environmental Resources Management, ERM, which is a very large company through the world. They have about 160 offices in 40 countries. And they do environmental audits and really they are the leading consultancy in sustainability. So, I am excited to join a team of more than 5,000 people who really look at scaling this type of work all over the world.
What are the biggest challenges that you face when you are implementing supply chain sustainability across such large organizations?
Well, across the large organizations, I mean, obviously, there's always this conversation on what is this business case, and can we include productivity. Can we save money? Can we generate revenues? Can we reduce the turnover in our factories that are manufacturing things?
So, again, the business people are looking for those real metrics via [inaudible 00:07:25]. I think that when you're actually out in many of these places around the world and you have such a large global organization, you have to be sensitive to the different cultures, the politics, the norms that are in these places. And one of the, I think, biggest challenges is often getting to the root cause. Like, what truly is the reason why a particular pattern may exist in a region or in a factory?And how do we spend the time and do the kind of training that we need to do to make real shifts happen?
So, I think that really is number one — really proving and demonstrating out that business case, and number two, it's focusing on the root cause and recognizing there are no silver bullets to that. You've got to do the work. You've got to go through an entire engagement process, which includes introduction and standards and risk assessments and auditing and questionnaires and training and communications and reporting. All of those elements exist and are a part of a good solid, rigorous program. And there are no shortcuts or silver bullets. And for sure, you can bring partners in who can design more efficient software tools. And I'm excited about what some of the future holds as we employ multi-media and the use of technology and gamification and [inaudible 00:09:26] activities that are done online.
I think there's tremendous opportunities for the future. Because so many of the people working throughout the supply chain in all the countries throughout the world are younger, younger generations, and guess what? They're all online, communicating with one another through their social media platforms and the use of games.
And so, we need to learn to employ those tools and use them for the benefit of the planet — not only to protect the voiceless stakeholders, such as the animals and plants, but also the resources that are affected by all of the various raw material industries, like extractives and the fishing and the deforestation, the timber. So, how do we bring the reality to those people on what's actually happening and help them become part of the solution, help them.
I mean, if you think about a game, what does a game do?It's about problem solving. You've got this challenge you've got to overcome. So, let's make this a big game. How do we solve world hunger? How do we reduce child labor? How do we improve education? How do we stop overfishing our oceans? How do we deal with plastics in our oceans? How do we plant more trees? I think that you're going to see tremendous problem-solving ability is done increasingly online.
Have you used this strategy in the part, or do you have any examples of success with using social media to help motivate people to...?
Yeah. I think social media is a very powerful tool. I recently saw that the director of marketing, the chief marketing officer speak from REI, and it was astounding. He was talking about them having gone back to their roots to look at who they were as a company and how they evolved. Originally they were a co-op of just a few people who needed outdoor gear — you know, they were hammering nails into the bottom of their shoes to get traction of ice and making their own sleeping bags and things. And so they got together to create this outdoor industry and the equipment that they needed to be outdoors.
And now they have really been examing how outdoors is such an important part of the value system, and if they don't focus on sustainability, we won't have the outdoors to enjoy. And so that led them to a campaign called Opt Outside, where they shut the doors of all of their stores on Black Friday, which is the day after Thanksgiving, supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year. And that was a big risk. And obviously for... You know, their employees had never had that day off, and so they did it partially for that, to let their employees spend the day with family. And then they said to all of their customers and people out there, "Hey, instead of going shopping, go be your family on the day after Thanksgiving. You're already with them on Thanksgiving. Go outside for a hike. Go Opt Outside."
Well, the director of marketing said that the impression and the coverage that they got was similar to as if they were on the front page of the New York Times for eight years every day. So, if that's not telling, I don't know what else is. There's no party that could pay for that kind of coverage, and that's just conversations, impressions happening in social media.
So, I think social media is an amazing tool as well as gamification. What I've been doing is looking at all the games that are out there. And we're trying to have a social media environmental message. In fact, I spent a couple of days playing a game which really dealt with the Middle East crisis and put you in a place where you started to think about if I was an Israeli leader or the Palestinian leader, or a representative from the UN, I had five different avenues, directions I had to go given a particular scenario — maybe a bomb went off in a marketplace. What would I do? And how would I address that? And what decisions would I make? Would I use diplomatic means? Would I use military means?
And I played the game for quite some time, and I came away from it with what I believe was a very realistic perspective on how challenging it is to make the right decisions, that you always have tradeoffs. And some stakeholder group is likely to be unhappy. We can't be very Pollyanna-ish and always think there's going to be a win-win, that there are tradeoffs. So, that's the kind of thing that I think.
Imagine using virtual reality and bringing people into the rainforest, or bringing them into a mine in the Congo, and having them actually experience it and feel it, and feel what it's like to be there, and how what the connection is between the product they're buying — that phone or that car or that laptop with a rechargeable battery — it that comes from that region of the world. Just to know that connection. I believe that's going to be increasingly important.
And I'm living right now in Silicon Beach, and I worked for the better part of 15 years in Silicon Valley, and so it's nice to see the intersection. What you've gotten in Silicon Beach is the technology combined with the media industry that really knows — and the entertainment industry — know about storytelling, and they know about narrative and how to inspire and engage and get people to particular and how to activate people. And so, I think we're coming into some very exciting times. I'm very optimistic and hopeful that together we're going to solve a lot of the challenges that we're facing environmentally and socially on the planet.
Thank you, Bonnie, for sharing today on supply chain sustainability.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
About Bonnie Nixon
Sustainability Strategy | Environmental | Human Rights | Stakeholder Management | Supply Chain | Ethical Sourcing | CSR