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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

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Consumerism & Supply Chain Meets Sustainability in the Chemical Industry

10 Mar

Next week, I’ll have the honor being the dinner keynote speaker at the European Petrochemical Associations 2nd Interactive Supply/Demand Chain Workshop in Brussels, Belgium. This years’ theme is “21st Century Supply Chains for the Chemical Industry”.  The topic is timely given how there’s been so much talk concerning over-consumption, consumer behavior, corporate social responsibility and increased growth of sustainability in manufacturing and supply chain management.  And the chemical industry indeed plays a large role in much of what we consume.  It reminds me of the old Monsanto commercial…”without chemicals, life itself would be impossible”.  It’s just that these days, chemicals in the global marketplace appear to be getting ‘greener’.

Consumer Demand for Sustainable Products

Consumer demand appears to be contributing (at least in part) to some of the gains in eco-friendly and sustainability focused design and manufacturing progress that’s being made in the global marketplace.  There is certainly a higher degree of consumer awareness and understanding of the need to make healthier, socially conscious and eco-friendly products.  However, the Green Confidence Index, a monthly online survey (~2,500 Americans by GreenBiz.com) noted last year that U.S. consumers cite price and performance as the principal reasons for not buying more green products- the flat growth was partially attributed to stale economy.  The slow economic growth of 2010 appeared to also be slowing widespread innovation by small to medium-sized businesses focused on green manufacturing.

In contrast, the consumer business disconnect appears to be alive and well in other parts of the world. In fact, it’s my thinking that businesses are significantly underestimating consumer interest and awareness in sustainability and green issues.  For instance, consumer demand for sustainably manufactured or ‘green’ products and services in China, India and Singapore are outstripping supply (according to an independent survey conducted by TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific). I’ve no doubt the same is the case in Europe, often considered way ahead in terms of consumer sensitivity regarding sustainability. The TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific found that:

  1. 84% of consumers prepared to pay an average 27% premium for green products, services.
  2. Only 43% of business believes consumers to be willing to pay more  or even produce or trade green products in China, India and Singapore.
  3. 74% of businesses either do not have a policy or guideline to  minimize environmental in place or are failing to clearly communicate  they have one.

Chemical Industry Response to Sustainability and Supply Chain Impacts

Manufacturers in the chemical industry and peripheral services have progressively been responding to end-consumer and customer driven pressures. The emergence of ‘green, (or sustainable) chemistry” and restricted materials initiatives over the past half-dozen or so years have propelled the chemical industry and global consumer products manufacturers to rethink how products are made, consumer health effects and long-term eco-impacts.  Traditionally, supply chain management of hazardous products has focused more on reducing the exposure to hazards than on hazard elimination. The advent of green chemistry has provided opportunities to refine supply chain management, including procurement policies and practices, by developing safer products. Redesigned products and processes can dramatically reduce the risks encountered in manufacturing, storage, transportation and waste control by mitigating the hazards associated with them. From a risk management perspective, since it is fundamentally better to mitigate hazards than to try to protect against them, green chemistry has proven to be highly beneficial and contributes by default to greener supply chain management and supply chain-related risk management

Many manufacturers have risen to the occasion in recent years to drive green chemistry and supply chain management to lessen their eco-footprints and support development of safer products.  Global chemical manufacturer BASF chooses its carriers, service providers and suppliers not just on the basis of price, but 0n their performance in the fields of environmental and social responsibility when making our sourcing decisions. In addition to following the internationally recognized Responsible Care program requirements for environmental, health and safety, BASF has established product stewardship goals designed to reduce its overall eco-footprint.

“What counts for us is acting responsibly throughout the entire supply chain because we want to build stable and sustainable relationships with our business partners. This is why we choose carriers, service providers and suppliers not just on the basis of price, but also include their performance in the fields of environmental and social responsibility when making our decisions.”

The company also maintains several key features of its global supply chain management program, including:

  1. Safe transportation to our customers
  2. Evaluate and support partner companies
  3. Monitoring of suppliers
  4. Product types and sources important
  5. Providing advice for better services
  6. China: sustainability in the value chain
  7. Minimum social standards for suppliers

Meanwhile, DuPont’s Mission is focused on “creation of shareholder and societal value while we reduce the environmental footprint along the value chains in which we operate”.  Throughout the production-supplier-consumer value chain, DuPont strives through end to end supply chain communication to 1) manage risk and be adaptable; 2) gain efficiencies & profitable flexibility; and 3) enable sustainable product performance and verification through its entire supply chain. Sustainability efforts are tracked and managed for continual improvement through a combination of business management integration approaches and supply chain design and operation.

On the retail side, Walmart has asserted itself in the past several years, by clarifying its stance about reducing toxics in products.  In response, American Chemistry Council members have pledged to lower GHG intensity by 18% by 2012 using 1990 as a base-reporting year and has exceeded that initial commitment and has reduced carbon intensity by 36%.  In addition, Dow Chemical’s is working to harmonize the Walmart goal with its own sustainability objectives of decreasing its environmental footprint and maximizing product performance throughout the supply chain.

“Given the challenges associated with running a global chemical manufacturing supply chain, we have been focused on sustainability for a long time – not just our own but also how we address sustainability with our customers and our customers’ customers,” – Anne Wallin, director of sustainable chemistry and life cycle assessment at Dow Chemical.

Logistics Providers Stepping Up to the Challenge

Among supply chain and logistics businesses, the 2009 14th Annual 3PL Study found that shippers want to create more sustainable, environmentally conscious supply chains. The survey found a need to strike a balance between labor & transportation costs.  Surveyed 3PL’s also noted the market value of carbon-reducing processes, compressed production cycles, and less carbon intensive transportation modes that beat the competition.

Most recently, American Shipper just published its Environmental Sustainability Benchmark Study of over 200 shipping companies.  According to the study, “survey respondents clearly see environmental sustainability has an emerging impact and increasing importance in their supply chain. On a scale of one to five (one lowest; five highest) the study average ranked sustainability as 2.42 two or three years ago, 3.41 today, 3.95 in five years, and 4.17 in 10 years”. Interestingly, customer demands, at 25% percent (see graphic below) are on a par with company policies as a leading driver of environmental sustainability adoption.  Most respondents saw potential return on investment (ROI) although ROI was clearly a potential barrier to sustainability adoption.

In response, leading 3PLs and fourth party logistics providers (4PL’s) are focusing more attention on business practices that are intentionally drive business efficiencies , but (perhaps unintentionally) enhance overall environmental performance, namely:

  • In-Store Logistics
  • Collaborative warehousing & infrastructure
  • Reverse Logistics
  • Demand Fluctuation Management
  • Energy/Fuel Use Management

End consumer preference certainly has its place in deriving sustainability in the 21st century, but as I see it, the chemical industry and its shipping and logistics partners are showing proactive leadership in embedding sustainability in the “source, make, deliver and return” product value chain.

My next post will explore how competitive collaboration, or “co-opetition”, is making resurgence in the supply chain sustainability conversation.  In the meantime, I’m looking forward to next week’s conference and all the hospitality that Brussels has to offer.

Taming the Tiger: GE Manages China Supply Chain Sustainability Issues with Education & Collaboration

1 Mar

Many of my prior posts have highlighted the critical needs for increased supply chain collaboration among the world’s largest manufacturers. 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). I have stressed how the most successful greening efforts in supply chains are based on value creation through the sharing of intelligence and know-how about environmental and emerging regulatory issues and emerging technologies.  I’ve further stressed how suppliers and customers can collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance, share cost of ownership and social license to operate and create “reciprocal value”.  But supply chain sustainability and corporate governance must be driven by the originating manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors for their products.

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.

GE’s “Bringing Good Things to…”  it’s Supply Chain

In the fall of 2010, GE conducted a Supply Chain Summit in Shanghai, China. China was selected as the first supplier summit venue outside the United States mainly because of the ‘unique set of challenges global manufacturers face in conducting overseas manufacturing’. As GE’s Supply Chain Summit site notes, “China’s manufacturing industry has grown immensely over the past decade, faster than its environmental controls and the availability of skilled managers. Thirty percent of GE’s suppliers covered by the company’s Supplier Responsibility Guidelines Program are in China, yet more than half of the environmental and labor standard findings under the Guidelines Program have been identified in the country. Many factories continue to struggle to meet standards and local laws regarding overtime, occupational health, and environmental permits.”  This suggests that the ratio of negative supplier findings to supplier location is higher in China than in other geographies where GE operates.

To meet that deficiency, a key element of GE’s supply chain management program relies on intensive supplier auditing and oversight.  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. GE performs due diligence on-site inspections of many suppliers as a condition of order fulfillment and as part of its tender process.

In a two-year period from 2008 to 2010, GE’s supplier environmental and social program focused assessments were conducted in 59 countries, in addition to performing “spot checks” or investigating complaint or media initiated concerns at particular factories. Some suppliers noted “audit fatigue” which can be perfectly understandable (being an auditor myself I can appreciate the wear and tear this causes on the mind and body after a while!). Third-party firms conduct some of the inspections. However, many of those participating in the audits found that third-party firms often did not provide the critical “how to” guidance as to altering business practices to assure future compliance.

What appeared to be most beneficial to manufacturers is GE’s detailed auditor-training program, which includes instruction on local law requirements and field training followed by a supervised audit with an experienced GE auditor.   The summit findings noted that dealing with the hands on “how to” aspects of solving non-compliance issues greatly helped Chinese manufacturers to “understand the importance of treating their employees fairly and the need to systematically manage the environmental impacts of their operations”. Suppliers at the summit also highlighted the business benefits that resulted from this “maturing approach to labor and environmental standards, including improved worker efficiency and morale, an enhanced reputation, and increased customer orders”. GE’s more advanced suppliers shared that they were developing management systems or integrated processes to proactively address issues and risks.

Education First!

EHS Academy, courtesy GE

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, and give them the management, implementation and technical knowledge to be able to proactively assure ensure “that real performance is sustainable and integrated fully into the overall business strategy and operating system” of a company.  Chinese regulatory agencies are also invited to participate as well. The model that GE is using in China offers a positive example of collaborative innovation.

As large companies like GE and Apple expand their production capabilities throughout the globe, it’s vital that they continue to seek ways to train and educate contract manufacturers on environmental and social issues.   This may be tough to do because countries like China are still in the “ramp-up” phases of economic development.  Plus it’s been evident for some years that enforcement of environmental and social laws and regulations by government agencies has not been on  par with the intent of the laws.  It’s also likely that (for the foreseeable future) Chinese political and economic systems will remain focused on rapid development at all costs. So it’s critical that local/in-country government policies be aligned as well to support capacity-building for companies to self-evaluate, learn effective auditing and root- cause evaluation,  institute effective corrective and preventive action programs and seek means to systematically achieve continuous improvement through proactive environmental  and social management systems.

The GE program offers a glimmer of hope that (in China and similar developing economies) that multi-stakeholder, collective and timely collaboration may (someday soon) tame the tiger.

Embracing Sustainability and Innovation to Get (and Stay) Ahead in Business

21 Apr

This week, I am sure that you are reading this along with the many other blogs that mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.   For 40 years, as Americans, we have aspired to change the world through enhanced environmental consciousness, policy making, and technological innovations that drive sustainability.  In the U.S. we have lurched forward, sputtered badly, recovered, then stopped all together, then jumped forward again.  So our choices and actions moving forward in this new “green economy” have not been entirely without influence or challenges, from ourselves and from nations afar. The only certainty is that it’s our own actions that can shape the path of our own organizations, communities and markets.

Disruptive technology and disruptive innovation are terms used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by being lower priced or designed for a different set of consumers. http://www.claytonchristensen.com/disruptive_innovation.html.  Christensen’s’ theory, featured in both “The Innovators Dilemma” and “The Innovators Solution” provides a prescription for a small entrant with less resources to compete with and beat a large incumbent. A quick look at the Disruptive Innovation model is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaKgMcFP4Mo

Disruptive innovations either create new markets or reshape existing markets by delivering relatively simple, convenient, low-cost innovations to a set of customers who are ignored by industry leaders. Historically, companies that dominate an industry have had little interest in pursuing these types of innovations because profit margins are often lower and the innovations don’t address the needs of those companies’ best customers. http://www.innosight.com/documents/diprimer.pdf

What does this have to do with “sustainability”?  I had the chance to participate in a recent Leadership Summit here in Portland, hosted by the University of Oregon.  The goal of the summit was to vette business and sustainability leaders in Oregon/SW Washington are as to how the U of O Center for Sustainable Business Practices could serve as a catalyst for innovation and bring sustainable solutions to the marketplace in Oregon and beyond.  One goal that the Center has is to seek innovative approaches that can break the endemic boom-bust cycle that Oregon and many western states have often found themselves in.  Never mind that there are tax related issues or brittle governance, or well intentioned but ineffective public-private partnership infrastructures that add to the fiscal malaise.

The discussion that ensued was interesting and of particular note because of the many references to disruptive technology.  From this dialogue, it became clear that collaboration- finding ways to harmonize research, policy, manufacturing and service – is vital to a stable, sustainable economy.  It was generally agreed that  in order to support meaningful job growth, an educated community and sustained economic performance, two things must happen:  1) all parts must be working together and 2) there needs to be a policy/governance, educational, and public-private infrastructure that supports disruptive technology and innovation.

A book that I have been reading, The Silver Lining, A Playbook for Uncertain Times, by Scott Anthony, provides some answers as to how communities and organizations can move forward to realize opportunities in their markets. This 10-point checklist synthesizes The Silver Lining‘s key messages and provides practical guidance for leaders. Each item links to a blog post describing the item in more depth.

Does your organization:

  1. Recognize today’s transformation imperative?
  2. Have a handle on the future potential of innovation?
  3. Have a process to prudently prune its innovation portfolio on a regular basis
  4. Have clear consensus on the 1-3 top growth opportunities?
  5. Always ask, “How does the customer define more?” before asking people to do more with less?
  6. Match technological experiments (“can we?”) with strategic experiments (“should we?”)?
  7. Constantly search to share the innovation load to de-risk innovation?
  8. Have a plan to “love the low end” in existing and emerging markets?
  9. Run an innovation factory with systems and structures to make innovation repeatable?
  10. Have a plan to help leaders transform themselves?

Finally, I want to share with all of you a seminal piece which I recently purchased from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) and that I “tweeted” about last fall http://bit.ly/2yfirf.   Please read this!  Authors Nidumolu, Prahalad, and Rangaswami have found that the quest for sustainability can unearth organizational and technological innovations that yield both top-line and bottom-line returns. That quest has already begun to transform the competitive landscape.  The authors found that companies on the journey to sustainability go through five distinct stages of change:

  1. viewing compliance as opportunity
  2. making value chains sustainable;
  3. designing sustainable products and services;
  4. developing new business models; and
  5. creating next-practice platforms.

By going through these key stages of change, the study found that “sustainability isn’t the burden on bottom lines that many executives believe it to be. In fact, becoming environment-friendly can lower your costs and increase your revenues. That’s why sustainability should be a touchstone for all innovation.  In the future, only companies that make sustainability a goal will achieve competitive advantage. That means rethinking business models as well as products, technologies, and processes.”

This research was for me transformative and insightful, and offers compelling reasons for embedding sustainability into operational practices and strategic business strategies.

Whether you read Anthony, explore Christensen’s ideas or the review the HBR article, history shows us that innovation flourishes, no matter how dark the times. You can either reflect on this time in our economic recovery as the beginning of the end or a jump-start to transform your business or your market space. It all depends on your actions, so get innovative now!

All Parts Working Together