Navigating Sustainable Supply Chain Management in China Takes a Keen Eye & Business Sense

7 Apr

2010 marked a watershed moment in supply chain sourcing among worldwide manufacturers and retailers. Sustainability observers and practitioners read nearly weekly announcements of yet another major manufacturer or retailer setting the bar for greener supply chain management.  With a much greater focus on monitoring, measurement and verification, retailers and manufacturers Wal-Mart, Marks and Spencer, IBM, Proctor and Gamble, Kaiser Permanente, Puma, Ford, Intel, Pepsi, Kimberly-Clark, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Herman Miller among many others made major announcements concerning efforts to engage, collaborate and track supplier/vendor sustainability efforts, especially those involving overseas operations.  Central to each of these organizations is how suppliers and vendors impact the large companies’ carbon footprint, in addition to other major value chain concerns such as material and water resource use, waste management and labor/human rights issues.Meanwhile, efforts from China’s manufacturing sector regarding sustainable sourcing and procurement, was at best, mixed with regard to proactive sustainability.  From my perspective as a U.S. based sustainability practitioner (with a passion in supply chain management), the challenges that foreign businesses with manufacturing relationships in China can be daunting.  Recent events concerning Apple Computers alleged lax supplier oversight and reported supplier human rights and environmental violations only shows a microcosm of the depth of the challenges that suppliers face in managing or influencing these issues on the ground.  Apple recently did the right thing by transparently releasing its Apple Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report, which underscored just how challenging and difficult multi-tiered supply chain management can be.  But all is certainly not lost and many companies have in recent years begun to navigate the green supply chain waters in China. 

According to a World Resources Institute White Paper issued in the fall of 2010, China faces a number of supply chain challenges.  First, the recent spate of reports alleging employee labor and environmental violations can place manufacturing partnerships with global corporations at risk.  According to the report, Chinese suppliers that are unable to meet the environmental performance standards of green supply chain companies may not be able to continue to do business with such firms. Wal-Mart has already gone on record, announcing that it will no longer purchase from Chinese suppliers with poor environmental performance records. In order to be a supplier to Wal-Mart, Chinese companies must now provide certification of their compliance with China’s environmental laws and regulations.

Photo Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/scobleizer/ under Creative Commons license

Wal-Mart, like many other IT and apparel manufacturers also conducts audits on a factory’s performance against specific environmental and sustainability performance criteria, such as air emissions, water discharge, management of toxic substances and hazardous waste disposal. These actions are extremely significant as Wal-Mart procures from over 10,000 Chinese suppliers.  This increased scrutiny on environmental and corporate social responsibility through supplier scoring and sustainability indexing, says the WRI report may trump price, quality, and delivery time as a decisive factor in a supplier’s success in winning a purchasing contract.

Chinese Government Stepping Up Enforcement

Finally, what good news I hear about the depth of environmental regulations on the books in China is buffered by the apparent lax enforcement of the rules and regulations.  That is however appearing to change.  The WRI report indicated that the Chinese State Council is directing key government agencies, including the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection to prohibit tax incentives, restrict exports and raise fees for energy intensive and polluting industries, such as steel, cement, and minerals extraction.   Also, it’s been reported in the past years that the People’s Bank of China and the Ministry of Environmental Protection are also working with local Chinese banks to implement the ‘Green Credit’ program, which prevents loans to Chinese firms with poor environmental performance records. In addition, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Finance have issued a notice to all Chinese central and local governments to purchase goods from suppliers that are ‘energy efficient’. Finally, on a local level, governments have developed preferred supplier lists for companies producing environmental-friendly products for their purchasing needs.

Supplier Challenges Are Not Just Environmental

A China Supply Chain Council survey conducted in 2009 identified a huge gap in knowledge between (1) clear understanding of which environmental issues posed the greatest risk (2) what to do to manage significant environmental risks.  Also, nearly 40% of the company’s surveyed thought sustainability to be cost prohibitive, too complicated or where particular expertise was lacking don’t have the expertise (on the other hand 60% did!).  Two- thirds of respondents did consider sustainability to be a supply chain priority, although many were not confident of the return on investment.  However, more than half of the respondents reported that they had begun collaborating with their larger supply chain partners.    In fact, according to the World Resources Institute White Paper, despite increasing pressures to improve their environmental performance, Chinese suppliers face many financial challenges to operating in a more sustainable manner

World Resources Institute White paper notes increasing  non-environmental pressures, including:

  • “Extended green investment “payback”: While improving resource consumption, such as energy and water, provides long-term cost savings, the payback for making such environmental investments may be as long as three years, which is financially impossible  for many Chinese suppliers.

  • Lack of financial incentives from green supply chain buyers: Multinational buyers are often unwilling to change purchasing commitments and long-term     purchasing contracts to Chinese suppliers that make the investments to improve their environmental performance.

  • Rising operational costs: Chinese suppliers face  rising resource and labor costs. For example, factory wages have increased  at an average annual rate of 25 percent during 2007 to 2010. Rising costs dissuade suppliers from making environmental investments which may raise  operating costs.

  • Limited access to finance: The majority of Chinese suppliers are small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) with limited access to formal financing channels such as bank loans.  Chinese SMEs account for less than 10 percent of all bank lending in China,  and as a result, Chinese suppliers frequently do not have the capital to     make the necessary environmental investments.

  • Intense domestic and global competition: Chinese suppliers face intense competition from thousands of firms, both  domestic and international, within their industries. This intense competition puts constant pressure on suppliers to cut costs, which can  include environmental protections, in an effort to stay in business.

Leveraging the Supply Chain to Gain “Reciprocal Value”

Leading edge, sustainability –minded and innovative companies have found “reciprocal value” through enhanced product differentiation, reputation management and customer loyalty.  I recently highlighted the model efforts that GE has implemented with its China based suppliers to implant responsible and environmentally proactive manufacturing into their operations.  GE’s comprehensive supplier assessment program evaluates suppliers in China and other developing economies for environment, health and safety, labor, security and human rights issues. GE has leaned on its thousands of suppliers to obtain the appropriate environmental and labor permits, improve their environmental compliance and overall performance.   In addition, GE and other multi-national companies (including Wal-Mart, Honeywell, Citibank and SABIC Innovative Plastics) have partnered to create the EHS Academy in Guangdong province.  The objective of this no-profit venture is to create a more well-trained and capable workforce of environmental, health and safety professionals.

Summary

Many of my prior posts have highlighted the critical needs for increased supply chain collaboration among the world’s largest manufacturers in order to effectively operationalize sustainability in Chinese manufacturing plants. This is especially evident for large worldwide manufacturers operating subcontractor arrangements in developing nations and “tiger economies”, such as India, Mexico and China (and the rest of Southeast Asia). Global manufacturer efforts underscore how successful greening efforts in supply chains can be based on value creation through the sharing of intelligence and know-how about environmental and emerging regulatory issues and emerging technologies.

Suppliers and customers stand so much to gain from collaboratively strengthening each other’s performance and sharing cost of ownership and social license to operate.  But as I have stated before, supply chain sustainability and corporate governance must first be driven by the originating product designers and manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors in far-away places for their products.


Note: This piece is adapted from a recent article that I wrote, “Navigating China’s Green Road” that appears in China Sourcing Magazine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: