Tag Archives: China

Scalable Consumption + Supply Chain + Circular Economy = Hope for Sustainable Economies

1 Mar

Consumers have unprecedented opportunity to be active shapers of the products and services they buy and use, rather than passive receivers, taking whatever companies provide.  Apples most recent litmus test on corporate social responsibility with its key Chinese supply chain manufacturing partner, Foxconn, and resulting consumer outcry is but just one example of the power that consumers have to sway products manufacturers to alter their business patterns.

At the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Aron Cramer (CEO and President of Business for Social Responsibility or BSR) observed at one workshop the “fast-changing relationship between businesses and consumers. The question on the minds of many of the business executives in the room was “is this good or bad for business”. The answer to this particular either/or question is undoubtedly both. Companies that stay ahead of this curve by involving consumers in product design; providing transparent information about the social and environmental content of these products, and looking at new models to provide value in new ways will prosper. Those that don’t will find growth hard to come by.”

Scaling Consumption in a Smart and Sustainable Way

The WEF has devoted a great deal of attention to the issue of scaling consumption sustainably as the world economy shifts both demographically and economically. WEF examines these issues in a report entitled: More with Less: Scaling Sustainable Consumption and Resource Efficiency. The study properly takes a “systems view” of sustainable consumption.  In other words, rather than focusing just on the demand side, WEF looks at the challenges and possible solutions through a value-chain centric lens of what they describe as:

  • consumer engagement (demand)
  • value chains and upstream action (supply)
  • policies and an enabling environment to accelerate change (rules of the game).

“Making your business sustainable in today’s world is an absolute imperative. The business case for sustainable growth is clearer than ever and the urgency of the issues we face means that business leaders have no choice but to act. ” Paul Polman. Chief Executive Officer, Unilever

As WEF explains, “The main outcome is the identification of key focus areas for business leadership through concrete goals and collaboration across industries”.  For this report, WEF engaged with chief executive officers, business leaders and experts worldwide, seeking answers and thoughts centered six key questions:

  1. What are the key trends in sustainable consumption?
  2. What is the size of the opportunity for countries, companies and consumers?
  3. What are the barriers to scaling existing models of sustainable consumption?
  4. What does getting to scale look like?
  5. What new solutions are needed to get to scale in sustainable consumption?
  6. How can we achieve scale by working collectively and creating action on new fronts?

 Barriers, Mind Sets and Complexities- Oh My!

To no surprise, the report identified a number of internal and external barriers to staving and influencing scalable and sustainable consumption, notably (according to the report):

  • Consumers lack incentives for sustainable consumption and are confused by mixed messages. The study noted that one survey of British consumers indicated that 70% were uncertain about the environmental performance of the products they buy.  I have seen similar surveys here in the United States that compare with the British results
  • Supply chains are complex, opaque and interconnected. Deep supply chains, like Apples or the textile industry, create many complexities that place  limits to in certainties sustainable sourcing
  • Technology remains costly and inadequately deployed.   The study notes that “Fewer than 20 facilities in the world are certified to melt down and recycle the cathode ray tubes of old television sets, and all are in Asia. E-waste, which at present largely originates in the US and Europe will travel across multiple countries and continents for recycling – putting the environmental benefits into question and causing additional social concerns”.  That being said, more collaborative enterprises across industries and economies can replace the linear economies that characterize western industrial nations, and create more opportunities to expand technologies further and wider.
  • Policy incentives remain weak. The report notes that “trade systems and tariffs rarely differentiate between unsustainable and more sustainable alternatives, preventing a potential increase of 7–13% in the traded volumes of sustainable products
  • Short-termism dominates the landscape, and traction in fast-growing markets remains low. Typical of capitalism and free enterprise, most companies growth targets rarely look out father than a few years, and seek short term gains to keep shareholders happy.  The WEF report noted that “55% of FTSE 100 company sustainability targets were to be achieved within 1–2 year timeframes, while only 18% looked out to 2018–2020”.

The graphic below suggests some strategies in the report to overcome these barriers along the three key value-chain points as described above.

Solutions for Scaling Economies (Source, WEF, 2012)

Moving Toward a Circular Economy

Something else also happened “on the way to the Forum” (well actually at the Forum) that may offer some insights and solutions that are discussed in the WEF report.  At Davos, Ellen MacArthur, head of the non-profit Ellen MacArthur Foundation, suggested that while” rapid technological evolution across all major industry sectors,{was taking place] … very little change within the economic model itself {has been occurring]. The economy is still based on a linear “take, make and dispose” model.”  A new report Towards the Circular Economy, analyzes the international business case behind the idea of shifting from a linear to a more circular economy.

“The essence of the circular economy lies in designing goods using technical materials to facilitate disassembly and re-use, and structuring business models so manufacturers can reap rewards from collecting and refurbishing, remanufacturing, or redistributing products they make. In this model all things are made to be made again, ultimately using energy from renewable sources[and in a less toxic manner]. Companies shift to focusing on selling performance in the place of product, and consumers now become users.” – Ellen MacArthur

Make sense?  Well if Ms. MacArthurs numbers are correct, “embracing the circular economy model could lead to an annual economic opportunity of up to $630bn a year towards 2025.”  Where do I sign up!!??  Still interested?  Read more about the circular economy, ways to leverage the entire supply chain and build sustainable, scalable consumption here and view a fascinating video here. .

As Aron Cramer mentioned in a GreenBiz article in January, the time for sustainable consumption is now.  “The need to develop new consumption patterns is the mother of all innovation challenges. The race to dematerialize is on. Some of this will come from the digital revolution, as newspapers can now be delivered wirelessly to e-readers instead of plopping dead trees on the doorstep. But some of the innovation will come from redesigning business models.”  Perhaps Mr. Cramer and Ms. MacArthur are onto something.

Are you, as consumer, as manufacturer, product designer or corporate executive, or even as fellow Planet-eer, ready to help make that change?  We can change the rules of the game together, for a stronger, more circular economy. As Captain Planet says, “The Power is Yours”.

Advertisements

Will Apple Finally Embrace Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability w/ Tim Cook at Helm?

19 Jan

If you have been a frequent reader of this space, you’d know my position on Apple and the manner in which it’s conducted its supply chain sustainability programs…or hasn’t.

2011: Game On (or the Collective Karma Ran Over Your Dogma)

Last fall, I wrote about the follow up efforts by Chinese NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), who performed five more months of research and field investigations and reported that “the pollution discharge from this enormous industrial empire has been expanding and spreading throughout its supply chain, seriously encroaching on the local communities and their environment… the volume of hazardous waste produced by suspected Apple Inc. suppliers was especially large and some had failed to properly dispose of their hazardous waste.”

Six months before that (nearly a year ago), I presented my thoughts about the IPEs report that leveled complaints against the IT/Electronics industry and the overall performance of nearly 30 major manufacturers and their respective key parts suppliers.  The report focused on “the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers”.  Concerns were raised in the report regarding levels of environmental toxins and pollutants being discharged in rivers and streams and into air sheds.

Many people have asked me over the past half-year why Apple is being uncooperative or secretive.  Well, “secrecy” has always been part of the Apple mystique, but of course so has evolutionary and disruptive innovation. The problem as I saw it then (and this thought has now been vindicated) is when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability, transparency is the name of the game, not secrecy.  I also suggested that Apples supplier network may be too big to handle and they lack the tools, systems and technologies to perform adequate supplier training and oversight.  Combined with inconsistent Chinese regulatory agency oversight on its industrial manufacturers, this presented difficult challenges to a workable, and meaningful sustainable supply chain solution. But Nike did it, so why couldn’t (or wouldn’t) Apple, I asked?

My advice last September to Apple and new CEO Tim  Cook was to step up and be as evolutionary on corporate social responsibility and sustainability matters as it is with its products.  My exact words were: “show humility, take responsibility, and act swiftly and collaboratively.”

Gladly I am happy to report that Apple has wised up and stepped voluntarily under the glare of public scrutiny.

2012: Enter Mr. Cook…the New, Improved, Socially Responsible Apple?

"Good Apple"

In its Supplier Responsibility 2012 Progress Report, the company states it is “committed to driving the highest standards for social responsibility throughout [its] supply base”. It adds: “We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.”

The 156 companies it lists alongside the report on its Supplier Responsibility website account from more than 97 per cent of what Apple pays to suppliers to manufacture its products.  A complete picture of all the thousands of suppliers in Apples supply chain may be daunting, but at least the company has captured the suppliers where the “greatest spend” is.

Highlights from the 2012 Report

  • In 2011, we conducted 229 audits throughout our supply chain — an 80 percent increase over 2010 — including more than 100 first-time audits. We continue to expand our program to reach deeper into our supply base, and this year we added more detailed and specialized audits that focus on safety and the environment.
  • Apple-designed training programs have educated more than one million supply chain employees about local laws, their rights as workers, occupational health and safety, and Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct.
  • Our audits have always checked for compliance with environmental standards. In 2011, in addition to our standard audits, we launched a specialized auditing program to address environmental concerns about certain suppliers in China. Third-party environmental engineering experts worked with our team to conduct detailed audits at 14 facilities. We uncovered some violations and worked with our suppliers to correct the issues. We will expand our environmental auditing program in the coming year. [violations unearthed included dumping wastewater onto a neighboring farm, using machines without safeguards, testing workers for pregnancy and falsifying pay records]
  • We have a zero-tolerance policy for underage labor, and we believe our system is the toughest in the electronics industry. In 2011, we broadened our age verification program and saw dramatic improvements in hiring practices by our suppliers. Cases of underage labor were down significantly, and our audits found no underage workers at our final assembly suppliers. [Apple said it found six active and 13 historical cases of underage labor at some component suppliers, but none at its final-assembly partners]
  • We offer continuing education opportunities at our suppliers’ facilities free of charge. More than 60,000 workers have enrolled in classes to study business and entrepreneurship, improve their computer skills, or learn English. And the curriculum continues to expand. We’ve also partnered with some local universities to offer courses that employees can apply toward an associate degree.

Apple has vowed to deal with worker abuses, hoping to deflect criticism it was turning a blind eye to cases of poor working conditions in a mostly Asian supply chain. Perhaps in a huge move, Apple will allow independent auditors from the Fair Labor Association to also be part of the future auditing process.  In an interview last Friday, Mr. Cook said Apple’s vow to double the number of supplier audits along its supply chain is “raising the bar” for the entire high technology industry, and that more change is on the way.  Cook said “All of this means that workers will be treated better and better with each passing year…It’s not something we feel like we have done what we can do, much remains to be done.”

The San Jose (California) Mercury News quoted analyst Ken Dulaney with Gartner Research who wondered why this may have taken so long to happen. “Who knows why they didn’t do this sooner? It could have been because of Steve Jobs. Maybe with Cook’s financial background he’s trying to move Apple toward less secrecy, which would be a very good thing. It’s part of their trying to be a good global citizen.”

Under Scrutiny

Either way, Apple will continue to be under watchful eyes, as environmentalist and labor activists continue to push for more reforms by American companies doing business overseas.  Apple still will need to double down its efforts to respond more proactively to the many environmental impact related issues reported in the past by its major suppliers, especially in China.  But for a company that has played its cards extremely close to the chest, it’s a major breakthrough, if time proves the intent to be true.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum in Washington, D.C, said that how the industry as a whole responds” depends how engaged they [Apple] are going forward. You see companies make these commitments and there’s often a lot of fanfare, but it doesn’t always pan out the way they say it will.”

Maybe Mr. Cook is the one “Good Apple” that will save the bunch.  Let’s hope so.

Chinese NGO Claims Apple Supply Chain Sustainability is ‘Rotten to the Core’. Will Consumers Agree?

2 Sep

Photo by i.hoffman under CC License

Here we go again.  Six months ago, I presented my thoughts about a report by Chinese NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) that leveled complaints against the IT/Electronics industry and the overall performance of nearly 30 major manufacturers and their respective key parts suppliers.  The report focused on “the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers”.  Concerns were raised in the report regarding levels of environmental toxins and pollutants being discharged in rivers and streams and into air sheds.

Worker complaints about unsafe working conditions and acute health problems were presented.  The IPE gave opportunities to every company referenced in the report to initiate an open and two-way dialogue, and most did …except Apple Electronics.  According to the report, Apple was more secretive about its supply chain than almost every other American company operating in the China.  Apple came up among the laggards among 29 major electronics and IT firms in a transparency study drawn up by a coalition of China’s leading environmental groups.

These are the iPad and iPod guys for crying out loud!  The evolutionary wizards who have shaped and fundamentally changed the way that most consumers behave, work, interact and get on with their daily lives.  Those guys who at one point this summer became the wealthiest company in the United States…this before iconic CEO Steve Jobs retired.

Apple- Skinned Again

Following the early 2011 report, the IPE performed five more months of research and field investigations and reported that “the pollution discharge from this enormous industrial empire has been expanding and spreading throughout its supply chain, seriously encroaching on the local communities and their environment… the volume of hazardous waste produced by suspected Apple Inc. suppliers was especially large and some had failed to properly dispose of their hazardous waste.”

The IPE reported (rather colorfully I might add) that 27 suspected suppliers to Apple had known environmental problems.  The IPE noted that in Apples ‘2011 Supplier Responsibility Report’, “where core violations were discovered from the 36 audits, not a single violation was based on environmental pollution. The public has no way of knowing if Apple is even aware of these problems. Again, the public has no way of knowing if Apple has pushed their suppliers to resolve these issues. Therefore, despite Apple’s seemingly rigorous audits, pollution is still expanding and spreading along with the supply chain.”

IPE reported that “during the past year and four months, a group of NGOs made attempts to push Apple along with 28 other IT brands to face these problems and the methods with which they may be resolved. Of these 29 brands, many recognised the seriousness of the pollution problem within the IT industry, with Siemens, Vodafone, Alcatel, Philips and Nokia being amongst the first batch of brands to start utilizing the publicly available information. These companies then began to overcome the spread of pollution created by global production and sourcing, and thus turn their sourcing power into a driving force for China’s pollution control. However, Apple has become a special case. Even when faced with specific allegations regarding its suppliers, the company refuses to provide answers and continues to state that “it is our long-term policy not to disclose supplier information.

The IPE offered its opinion that “Apple has already made a choice; to stand on the wrong side, to take advantage of the loopholes in developing countries’ environmental management systems, and to be closely associated with polluting factories.”

IPE concluded that Apple needed to own up and be accountable for its supply chain for the following four reasons:

  1. “… any company that produces a large amount of hardware must bear the responsibility for the environmental and social costs incurred during the manufacturing process.
  2. Secondly, the suppliers who violate the standards for levels of pollutants emitted and who ignore environmental concerns and workers’ health do these things with the aim of cutting costs and maximizing profits.
  3. Thirdly, Apple Inc. understands that when passing the blame for social responsibility it can be difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the general public…; and
  4. Fourthly, many people do not understand that Apple and other brands’ outsourcing of production is not the same as ordinary purchasing behavior. Various sources of information show that Apple is deeply involved in supply chain management—from the choice of materials to use to the control of clean rooms in the production process.”

So What’s Wrong With Apple?

Apples image problem appears to be getting worse before it gets better and it may be more than just a public relations problem; and it’s not just in China that Apple is facing criticisms.  Apple, like most consumer electronics manufacturers is a major user of highly sought after precious minerals, many of them associated with conflict areas (so-called ‘conflict minerals’). Apple in fact sources tin from 125 suppliers that use 43 smelters worldwide.  That’s an awful big challenge from a supply chain management perspective. But Apple was still a bit slow to step up like other key IT companies like Dell and Intel and collaborate with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition in developing a framework to address conflict mineral traceability.

Further complicating the issue is the sheer size of Apples supply chain and the general difficulty that comes in managing dispersed multi-tired supply chains in other countries.  In an excellent piece published in GreenBiz this week, Environmental Defense Fund Project Manager Andrew Hutson suggested that  “If you’ve got an office in Shenzhen or Hong Kong, it’s very  hard to keep tabs on the perhaps thousands of factories you have across  China in any given moment”.  The article went on to discuss how scrutiny can sometimes  lead contractors to move factories to more remote areas, farther away  from watchdogs, suggesting that “the sheer distance from headquarters created by chasing low-cost labor  to developing countries can effectively reduce accountability”. While cheap labor in far off lands certainly has its benefits, clearly it has its disadvantages and Apple is paying the price.

Many people have asked me over the past half-year why Apple is being uncooperative or secretive.  Well, “secrecy” has always been part of the Apple mystique, but of course so has evolutionary and disruptive innovation. The problem is when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability, transparency is the name of the game, not secrecy.  In this “WikiLeaks” world of ours, mystique only gets companies mired deeper into areas of suspicion and distrust.

Photo via Michael Holden under Flikr CC License

But perhaps there is more to the issue to noodle on. Is it entirely possible that Apple isn’t ignoring the problem, but rather its supplier network is just too big to handle and they lack the tools, systems and technologies to perform adequate supplier training and oversight?  Or is it that Chinese regulatory agencies also lack the resources or institutional oversight necessary to monitor compliance over in-country industrial manufacturers that service multiple consumer brands?  Or is it possible that as consumers our insatiable appetite for Apple products is partly responsible for creating such high demand that Apple must reach out to hundreds if not thousands of suppliers to fulfill its orders and keep Apple product lovers happy?   Or is the problem a combination of rampant, unsustainable consumerism, poor regulatory oversight, a supply chain ‘gone wild’, AND a deviated moral center on the part of Apple (as the IPE suggests).  You see, its complicated and maybe, just maybe, we should all take a close look in the mirror and question our own culpability in this mess.

For any of my dedicated readers, I am by no means being an apologist for Apple.  You all know where I have stood in the past by constructively calling for Apple to step up and be as evolutionary on corporate social responsibility and sustainability matters as it is with its products.  I noted in my prior post the many key steps that Apple can and must take to effectively make a difference in its supply chain.  In addition Treehugger writer extraordinaire Jaymi Heimbuch offered some outstanding advice to new CEO Tim Cook, not the least of which was “requiring transparency in the supply chain and being more direct with suppliers about standards”.  My advice is simple Mr. Cook: show humility, take responsibility, and act swiftly and collaboratively.

Rest assured there are more activist organizations shaking Apples tree.  And what I fear (as Apple should too), is that one day all that shaking will bring that big old tree down.

Greenpeace Takes Global Clothing Brands and Chinese Textile Supply Chain to the Cleaners. Who’s Responsible?

15 Jul

“I make my living off the evening news

Just give me somethin’, somethin’ I can use

People love it when you lose

they love dirty laundry”(Don Henley)

(from Greenpeace Report, "Dirty Laundry")

I was reminded of that Don Henley (The Eagles) solo hit from back in the 1980’s when I read about Greenpeaces latest initiative and report…aptly titled…you guessed it, “Dirty Laundry”.  The report focuses on the high levels of industrial pollutants being released into China’s major rivers like the Yangtze and the Pearl and commercial ties between a number of international brands such as Adidas, Nike and Li-Ning with two Chinese manufacturers responsible for releases of those hazardous chemicals.  Greenpeace has also launched the challenge ‘Detox’ Campaign, calling “brands, especially Adidas and Nike, to take the initiative and use their influence on its supply chain.”  The organization unfurled its characteristic banners at Adidas’s main retail store in Beijing this week.

There are several nuances to this story that are important to pass on and collaborative opportunities (rather than the finger-pointing that has plastered Twitter and other media the past 24 hours) to explore.

Supply Chain Challenges …Again!

This latest supply chain environmental wrinkle underscores the challenges multi-national organizations (MNC) are facing daily in oversight and enforcement of first tier, second tier or lower contract manufacturers.  If it’s not Apple under the radar, its Nike, or Adidas, or GE…who’s next?  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.

To be fair, although the pollution is real and the threat of toxics contamination very real, it’s possible that Greenpeace may be sensationalizing Nikes and Adidas’s culpability.  In fact, neither company directly is involved with the key manufacturers labeled in the Greenpeace report.  The two manufacturers are the Youngor Textile Complex in Ningbo, an area near Shanghai along the Yangtze River Delta, and Well Dyeing Factory Ltd. in Zhongshan, China, along the Pearl River.  The Younger Group is China’s biggest integrated textile firm.

“Game on, Nike and Adidas.  Greenpeace is calling you out to see which one of you is stronger on the flats, quicker on the breaks, turns faster and plays harder at a game we’re calling ‘Detox’,” “Whether you’re ‘All in’ with Adidas or believe in the Nike motto to ‘Just do it,’ you can challenge the brand you wear to win the race to a clean finish.” -Greenpeace DeTox campaign’s website.

(from Greenpeace Report, "Dirty Laundry")

Both Nike and Adidas admitted jointly that said their work at Youngor is limited to cut-and-sew production — not “wet processing” such as dyeing and fabric finishing that Greenpeace says is the cause of the chemical discharge.  Greenpeace did not hide behind that fact but made the point (perhaps rightly so) that “As brand owners, they are in the best position to influence the environmental impacts of production and to work together with their suppliers to eliminate the releases of all hazardous chemicals from the production process and their products”.  I agree on the grounds that effective supply chain sustainability practices and corporate governance must be driven by the originating manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors for their products.

That being said, I think that to call out Nike and Adidas specifically (along with other companies like Puma) is to suggest that they are not doing the right thing as regards sustainability in the apparel industry.  For instance, Nike has learned from its mistakes if the past (especially on the labor/human rights side of social responsibility) and implemented aggressive governance frameworks and on the ground oversight programs.  Also, the  Nike Considered Index evaluates solvents, waste, materials, garment treatments and innovation, and the company has an internal working group constantly evaluating Restricted Materials lists.

Kick ’em when they’re up

Kick ’em when they’re down

Kick ’em when they’re up

Kick ’em all around- (Don Henley)

Chinese Laws and Regulatory Oversight- Not in Sync

As I noted recently, China is still in the “ramp-up” phases of economic development.  Plus it’s been evident for some years that enforcement of environmental laws and regulations by government agencies has not been on par with the intent of the laws.  According to the report, samples taken from the facilities contained heavy metals and alkylphenols and perfluorinated chemicals, which are restricted in the United States and across the European Union.  These chemicals have reproductive and hormone disruptive effects Therein lies another institutional problem…the laws in the home countries of the MNC’s are not in sync with those in the host manufacturing country- in this case, China.

Writing yesterday in China Hearsay, Beijing based lawyer Stan Abrams offered this up.  “This is a classic law versus CSR problem. The law here in China allows for this activity, yet the allegation is that this is a harmful activity. Should the companies in question merely follow the law or “do the right thing” and either sever ties with the polluter or pressure it to change its behavior?”

It’s 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 proactively implement systems based environmental management systems.

Multi-Sector Collaboration is the Answer

The apparel industry as a whole has taken a very proactive stance in looking at ways to redesign sustainably, produce its goods taking a cradle-to cradle perspective, and manage toxic chemical use and waste streams so that human and environmental exposures are minimized.  The multi-stakeholder Sustainable Apparel Coalition ironically includes Nike, the Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, and Patagonia (some of whom are also being targeted by Greenpeace).  Over 30 companies have committed to collaborating in an open source way to drive the apparel industry in developing improved sustainability strategies and tools to measure and evaluate sustainability performance.  In addition over 200 outdoor products companies from around the world have been working together on sustainability best practices and standards, called the Eco-Index, led by the Outdoor Industry Association and European Outdoor Group.

The most successful greening efforts in supply chains in “tiger economies” are based on value creation, sharing of intelligence and technological know-how, and support in developing environmental regulatory frameworks that have the force of law. MNC’s and contract manufacturers can collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance, share cost of ownership and social license to operate and create “reciprocal value”.  Greenpeace wants MNC’s to establish “  clear company and supplier policies that commit their entire supply chain to the shift from hazardous to safer chemicals, accompanied by a plan of action that is matched with clear and realistic timelimes”.  Agreed with that sentiment, but many hurdles remain to cross.

Youngor Textiles, Adidas and others cited in the report have not hidden from the findings, and Youngor has committed to working jointly with Greenpeace to find a workable solution to remove potentially harmful toxics from the apparel manufacturing supply chain.  Solving this problem on the ground will take a multi-stakeholder effort to 1) balance contractual arrangements among many parties, 2) craft good law and enforceable regulations, 3) drive clean chemistry, 4) redesign production processes and use advanced manufacturing technology, and, 5) develop, implement and maintain robust contactor monitoring.

I will be watching carefully to see how this collaborative effort with an NGO giant and big business unfolds…er, should I say “unfurls”.

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

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.

Can Apple Redeem Itself on Supply Chain Sustainability? Taking a Cue on Accountability from Nike’s Playbook

3 Feb

NOTE: Portions of this piece originally appeared as a guest column in Sustainable Business Oregon

Last week, on the way to a business meeting in downtown Portland I tuned into the local sports radio station.  Nationally syndicated sports commentator Dan Patrick (“DP”) was providing his one minute Above the Noise segment.  The focus was on if, how and when sports icons that have fallen from grace (due to an off the field indiscretion) they could ever redeem themselves in the public court of opinion.  And could they ever regain public acceptance to be ‘marketable’ commodities again.  Think player product endorsements.  Think Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest- well the list is WAY to lengthy to cover here, but you get the idea.  Most that have regained endorsement status (like Bryant) have either redeemed themselves through community service and on field performance, but often the public-at-large (er, consumers) just forget.  The past indiscretions have faded from the tabloids.

So I got to thinking that this sounded very familiar when it comes to companies (manufacturers and service industries in particular), and the ways in which they address sustainability matters.  I am thinking of manufacturers who have made environmentally impactful products, and willingly or knowingly conducted socially irresponsible or possibly unethical business practices that have led to public backlash.  And I thought about how some have been able to successfully “redeem” themselves and regain a positive marketplace reputation, while others never quite recovered.

Since this past week Apple was in the news, I thought DP’s radio op-ed was a perfect parallel.  According to a report issued by anti-pollution activists in China, Apple is more secretive about its supply chain than almost every other American company operating in the country. Apple came up among the laggards among 29 major electronics and IT firms in a transparency study drawn up by a coalition of China’s leading environmental groups.  The reports focused on “the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers”.  Though Apple is known in the industry for the secrecy it wraps around its newest product offerings, the “mystery of its supply chain is more a matter of covering up than preventing leaks”, the report stated. The report claimed that Apple’s suppliers have been involved in breaches of environmental regulation, including major waste discharge violations in recent years at several Chinese firms that are believed to be  part of Apple’s supply chain.  To be fair, Nokia, LG, SingTel, Sony and Ericsson also fared poorly in the survey, but Apple stood out in how it did not address and respond to the findings.

Apples Supplier Commitment

Of course this revelation was not the first time that Apple’s supply chain management oversight (or lack thereof) has been ‘shaken to its core’. Despite Apples Supplier Code of Conduct, it appears that they are not fully conforming to their own internal commitment and policies.  An insightful post from back in mid 2009 highlighted the series of issues that Apple has had with its supply chain, from human rights violations and pollution to lax supplier oversight and unfortunate subcontractor worker suicides.  Apple itself admitted its complacency in addressing social and environmental sustainability issues in a pragmatic but resolved manner.

Nikes Redemption Story- a Work in Progress

Apples current predicament is not unlike another company that relies on a deep contractor supply chain, whose headquarters in my backyard- Nike.  In the late 1980’s reports were starting to circulate from Indonesia and Asia concerning Nikes alleged “sweatshops”.  Over the course of the 1990’s, continued exposure of unscrupulous labor and human rights practices, combined with intensive public protests and campaigns continued to hound Nike and dragged down its reputation.

By 2001, the issue erupted and Nike was stung by reports of children as young as 10 making shoes, clothing and footballs in Pakistan and Cambodia.  Phil Knight, Nikes CEO admitted the company “blew it”. Nike, like many other companies (like Nestle, PepsiCo, Wal-Mart and other consumer products manufacturers and retailers) learned the hard way that taking liberties with “social license” to operate (especially in foreign countries) has its negative financial and reputational consequences.

That’s not to say of course that all is perfect in Niketown.  But with the corporate and supply chain infrastructure now in place to monitor, validate and continually improve supplier relations and accountability, fewer violations have occurred. Nike has continued to push open innovation and environmentally focused product design with social accountability in mind.  The Ethisphere Institute named Nike as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for 2010. The Institute recognizes organizations annually that “promote ethical business standards and practices by going beyond legal minimums, introducing innovative ideas benefiting the public and forcing their competitors to follow suit.”   Also, last October, Newsweek magazine took 500 of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies and produced a 2010 Green Rankings List.  Nike, was 10th on the list, and was noted for having a strong commitment to evaluating and improving the environmental footprint of its suppliers.  They also scored a 97 in the reputation category. (Apple by the way scored 65th, with a reputation score of 71.  I guess that low score represents that missing piece in Apples iconic logo.

Stepping Up to the Plate on “Social License to Operate” and Accountability

A great research study from 2002 (from the Center for the Study of law and Society at University of California Berkeley)  highlights the steps that companies in the apparel, forest products, consumer goods, oil and energy and other highly capitalized industries have gone through to “redeem” themselves and restore brand trust.  They’ve achieved this through rigid compliance with local environmental rules, product  and environmental stewardship, verification  and proactive social engagement.

Apple needs to do the same thing and implement a proactive supplier sustainability and verification program.  As I have laid out in prior posts, companies like Nestle, Corporate Express, Danisco, Starbucks, Unilever and the apparel industry stepped up in a big way to address human rights, fair labor and sustainable development in areas in which they operate throughout the world.  So too have major electronics companies like Hewlett Packard and IBM in leveraging their supply chains in assuring that corporate sustainability performance objectives are met.   Further, in 2010 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) unveiled its ISO 26000 Corporate Social Responsibility guidance document.  In addition, two prominent organizations, UL Environment and Green Seal unveiled and vetted two sustainability focused product (GS-C1) and organization (ULE 880) standards this past year, both of which may markedly affect supply chain environmental and social behaviors in the future.  That’s not to mention the issue of conflict minerals, which strikes deep at the cell phone manufacturing sector.  Finally, the age of openness and collaboration has arrived on the heels of Wikileaks and numerous high profile reputational back breakers.

Engaging and Leveraging the Supply Chain

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.  Leading edge, sustainability –minded and innovative companies have found “reciprocal value” through enhanced product differentiation, reputation management and customer loyalty.  Suppliers and customers must collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance and share cost of ownership and social license to operate.  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.

So Apple should take a cue from Nikes playbook- “Just Do It!”  This issue will not go away on a wing and a prayer.  Here’s how to get it done- right:

1)  As the 2009 post that I mentioned said, get your company on the ground and enforce your Supplier Code of Conduct – now.

2)  Open Up and reach out to external stakeholders, not just your suppliers.  Engage non-governmental organizations early and often.   Find a respected international organization or other third-party to facilitate the engagement process.   Treat communities, NGO’s and suppliers with respect.

3) Work with your supply chain and with industry peers to standardize requirements. Create or revisit the resources allocated in internal procurement networks to collaborate on environmental and social sustainability issues.

4) Construct environmental and social accountability requirements at the purchasing phase. Build environmental and social conformance criteria into supplier contract specs and incorporate sustainability and environmental staff on sourcing teams

5) Inform suppliers of corporate environmental concerns. Standardize supplier questionnaires and make sure that the Supplier Code of Conduct lands in the right hands.  Promote exchange of information and ideas by sponsoring charettes to facilitate discussions between customers and suppliers on environmental and social license issues.  Develop a supplier/vendor peer or mentoring program that promotes co-innovation on sustainability issues

6) Build environmental considerations into product design w/ suppliers. Apple already considers Design for environment (DFE) product innovation and life cycle analyses in its product design.  You’d be well served to coordinate minimization of environmental impact in the extended supply chain and work with suppliers to manage end-of-pipe environmental issues.  Give your suppliers an incentive to reduce their environmental loading associated with their products and improved worker conditions.

7) Follow up! Without adequate on-the-ground follow-through, on-going supplier engagement and long-term commitment of human and financial capital, your sustainability problems will persist.

So like sports stars, business stars can redeem themselves and their reputations.  But it first takes admitting that you have a problem before you can start down that path.  Apple has had a pretty rough year, what with CEO Steve Jobs taking medical leave, its products having persistent quality problems and its connection with negative environmental and human rights issues.  I’m hopeful that Apple and others will get the message that ol’ Ben Franklin stated so long ago but holds true today:

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” -Benjamin Franklin

Until then, “I’m a PC”.