Tag Archives: procurement

It’s Time to Find a Harmonized Solution to the U.S. Government’s Green Purchasing Challenge

17 Jun

In a recent article by  Tracey de Morsella (editor of the Green Economy Post (GEP)), the Federal Acquisition Regulations Council (FARC) released an interim rule on green procurement at the end of May, 2011.  The draft rule specifically says that Federal agencies must:

“leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and materials, products, and services. The head of each agency shall advance sustainable  acquisition by ensuring that 95 percent of new contract actions,  including task and delivery orders, for products and services, with the  exception of acquisition of weapon systems, are energy-efficient  (Energy Star or Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP)-designated),  water-efficient, biobased, environmentally preferable (e.g., Electronic  Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)-registered), non-ozone  depleting, contain recycled content, or are non-toxic or less toxic  alternatives, where such products and services meet agency performance  requirements.”

According to the GEP article, the effort was “spearheaded by the Defense Department, NASA and the General Services Administration, and part of the Obama administration’s campaign to lead by example in sustainable purchasing. The interim policy also requires all federal contractors to support the government’s goals in environmental management, and includes new requirements for electronic or other paper-saving methods for submitting documents required by contracts.”

The interim rule on green procurement it is a follow-up to President Obama’s 2009 executive Order EO 13514 which requires agencies to meet a number of energy, water, and waste reduction targets, including:

  • 95% of all applicable contracts will meet sustainability requirements;
  • Leverage Federal purchasing power to promote environmentally-responsible products and technologies to foster markets in these sectors.
  • Advance sustainable acquisition

This is a great development for the Federal government.  Not only does EO 13514 drive new markets but requires government agencies to 1) define sustainable acquisition and 2) track sustainable contract actions and …get this…3) educate the acquisition workforce.

The GEP article notes that “the effects of President Obama’s Executive Order have been rippling through the federal government purchasing community for a while.”  The article summarizes efforts by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which issued its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims,  Also the  U.S. EPA is evaluating its role in evaluating products across their entire lifecycle, including “defining criteria for more sustainable products, generating eco-labels and standards and verifying products meet green standards “

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has also initiated its GreenGov program, primarily focused on identifying products and practices designed to reduce the governments environmental (specifically carbon footprints).  As I noted in an article this past winter, according to Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, “The Federal Government purchases $500 billion in goods and services annually, so you could say the Federal supply chain represents an enormous opportunity to support a clean energy economy”.  Participating companies will share their experiences to help GSA develop a phased, incentive-based approach to developing contracting advantages to companies that track and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.   This process appears to be glacial in its pace, compared to the light speed pace of technology development in countries like China.

As the GEP post noted,  GSA is developing and evaluating green technologies and practices in several areas including: electronics stewardship, innovative building technologies and greening the supply chain. These latest activities by GSA are in addition to individual efforts that the Departments of Energy and Defense, NASA, USDA and Department of Agriculture have been implementing for many years.

On the surface this sounds all good, in fact, great.  But there are some underlying systemic issues related to the timing of the FARC interim ruling, and industry groups and procurement agencies are scratching their heads.

Left Hand, Meet Right Hand.

In response to the FARC interim draft rule , several industry associations requested that  the government , specifically the FARC to stop issuing rules that change federal procurement policy without first considering public comment.

Even though the “interim rule” is based on directives within executive orders (like EO 13514) from 2007 and 2009, the organizations (including members of the Council of Defense and Space Industry Associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (no surprise), Professional Services Council and TechAmerica) came out and stated that increasing reliance on “interim rules” is a misuse of the “urgent and compelling” circumstances those rules are supposed to be issued under.  The groups asked that the FARC withdraw the interim rule and republish it as a “proposed rule”, allowing for public comment.

The FARC maintains that the interim rule only mandates what previous executive orders, laws and sustainable programs have asked agencies to do and should not impact the agencies economically.  But that may not be the case.

While many of the agencies that I mentioned above are well on the way to responding to the previously issued Executive Orders (and I applaud them for their efforts!), they appear to be doing this in different ways- which may inadvertently find some suppliers being able to respond to one agencies tender processes and not to another.  It only took me a few moments to “Google” “government + green purchasing + requirements” to find remarkably outdated and variably detailed documents from Federal agency to Federal agency, some going as far back as the Year 2000!  Even a report from the Congressional Research Service from April 2010 indicated that “The federal approach to green procurement is arguably largely piecemeal and fragmented.” Also, it would appear that agencies may still lack consensus on product “green” performance standards, which is clearly a part of the EO 13514 mandate

There is little in the way of specifics behind the statement that they must be “energy-efficient, water-efficient, bio-based or non-ozone depleting, and are certified as environmentally friendly, contain recycled content, or are nontoxic or less toxic than alternative products.”  And it’s this lack of specificity and consistency among agencies that vexes small and large businesses alike.

“ there appears to be significant ambiguity about which type of green product or service agencies should procure in situations where multiple types could meet their needs. For example, the FAR requires agencies to acquire recovered-content products instead of biobased ones when both types would meet agency needs.  However, no similar guidance exists for the other types of preferred products and services discussed in this report. That leaves agencies without guidance in determining whether, for example, they should procure Energy Star or FEMP-designated products, or recovered-content or environmentally preferable products.” Green Procurement: Overview and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service 7-5700,  R41197 www.crs.gov

Why am I not surprised at the discontinuities that exist within Federal government (he asked rhetorically)?  Even President Obama alluded these redundancies and inefficiencies in his January State of the Union address. According to a Government Accountability Office report released in January, the U.S. government has more than 100 programs dealing with surface transportation issues, 80 for economic development, 47 for job training, and 17 different grant programs for disaster preparedness, 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five agencies are working to ensure the federal government uses less gasoline.  Really?!  Inefficiencies are wasteful…plain and simple.  This is no way to run a government let alone a business.  And let’s face it, government is BIG business.

 Training, Training, Training

What’s also concerning to me is that agencies may not have not adequately trained procurement staff that are prepared to implement detailed operational related to the “interim rule”.  I also am concerned that federal acquisitions staff  lack the technical training on green supply chain management to make informed choices beyond how to price and negotiate a contract.  As a matter of fact the CRS report states that “…certain requirements, most notably those involving environmentally preferable products, may be difficult for the existing workforce to implement because agencies must consider multiple attributes of products when determining which product to purchase.”

According to Neal Couture, President of the National Contract Management Association (which represents public and private contracting officers), “Contracting people that I talk to have received very little training in the area of sustainability”.  Additional cases in point, as described in a recent Federal Times article:

  • The Federal Acquisition Institute, which provides training for the federal acquisition workforce, offers no courses specifically addressing green procurement. The Defense Acquisition University (DAU) offers an optional, two-hour course devoted to the Defense Department’s Green Procurement Program.
  • Leslie Deneault, program director for acquisition services at DAU, said there are optional courses available that cover the many legislative actions that affect acquisitions.
  • Professional Services Council executive vice president Alan Chvotkin said contractors and government officials may find it hard to get needed products and services that meet environmental standards, possibly due in part to other contract specifications that often limit local sourcing or small business participation.
  • Program managers who write the requirements will need to know to which environmental standards certain products and services should be held, according to Mr. Couture said.

And you think one interim rule is going to straighten the green purchasing issue out?  There’s got to be a better way, and it may be found within the private sector.

Collaborative Cleantech Partnerships Rising to Meet the EO 13514 Mandate

One organization that is taking the initiative in responding to the interim rule on green purchasing and EO 13514 is the Clean Technology Trade Alliance, based in Bremerton, Washington.  According to Mark Frost, the Executive Director of the organization, the CTTA provides the ultimate partnership between business and environmentalists by creating a market-based reason to become sustainable and operate with efficient, environmentally responsible products and services. In addition, the technologies and products associated with CTTA members fit nicely into the Federal government’s EO 13514 vision for sustainable and environmentally preferable products.

The CTTA mission is to drive the expansion of global clean technology by connecting buyers with sustainable solutions. One part of this mission that fits squarely into the Federal government procurement model and most recent FARC interim rule is identifying and verifying clean technology solution providers for business and government. Since it’s essential to validate the extent of sustainable practices of member businesses, the CTTA is getting ready to roll out an independent review process to validate clean tech solution providers.  In doing so, the CTTA will reviewing each organizations operational processes and products and giving them a score based on defined criteria, using life cycle, product foot print, energy and multi-resource consumption and efficiency factors, etc. This review effort has the opportunity to become a market driver that moves companies to meet the highest “green and clean” technology standards in order to be more profitable and competitive. The CTTA also provides the means to discover clean technology solutions that will enable these companies to improve their score and profit from their efforts.

In addition the CTTA assists its members in 1) making commercialization of products easier with a trained sales force, that provide members qualified leads, and facilitating distribution lines for both established and unseasoned products; and 2) developing synergies between businesses that create new technologies, open new markets and discover new efficiencies. Those who collaborate with the CTTA receive a single point of contact to find clean technology business solutions, and most importantly a market reference point for making clean technology purchasing decisions.

The CTTA is uniquely positioned to provide the Federal government with a single, unbiased, point of entry for identifying and vetting clean technology solutions. First the basic identification and reporting service is a no cost service. Second if the CTTA does not have a member, or several members, that can provide the solution they will conduct a search to identify potential solution providers and conduct a basic survey to provide an initial vetting for the requestor. Third if the solution exists they will find a provider, if it does not they can work with companies to develop the solution if there is a sustainable market. The CTTA is a membership-driven organization, recruiting new members and servicing existing members- this is how the CTTA grows. Mr. Frost states that providing services to customers like GSA, the DoD, NASA, Boeing and others allows the CTTA to recruit small and mid-sized business members and is another example of the business synergy the CTTA pursues.

What Can Be Done to Harmonize Green Procurement?

The CRS report raised many of the questions about the efficacy of legislative initiatives or federal rulings that came to my mind in the months since I participated in a GSA GreenGov Summit in Portland, so I figured I’d just repeat just a few of them here:

  • What, if any, are the most useful and appropriate policy goals for green procurement?
  • Are the means by which different green-procurement preferences, programs, and other initiatives have been established the most appropriate for meeting policy goals?
  • How effectively are agency implementation and performance of green procurement being assessed?
  • How successful are current programs and initiatives at meeting policy goals?
  • Are policies on the acquisition of green services sufficient?
  • Are the preferences and the methods of implementing them sufficiently harmonized and integrated?
  • Are there significant gaps in the various federal preferences for types of green products and services?
  • Are there implementation methods not currently used by the federal government that should be considered?
  • Is training of procurement officials sufficient?

Until these questions are fully explored, I suggest the Federal government hold off on finalizing its interim rule and consider the collaborative private sector example being implemented by the CTTA.  In a perfect scenario, the White House should instruct representatives from the GSA, OMB, DoD, DoE, USDA, EPA, and Agriculture (and others) to come together in one place, at one time.  Attendees should also be invited from the private sector too- the best brains in the science, engineering and design of clean technology, standards development, policy, manufacturing and procurement/material acquisition.

In systematic and structured manner, they can hammer out a viable, results driven framework for sustainable sourcing and procurement.  This in turn (I am sure), will promote new technologies and drive the creation of new “green economy” markets….without all the confusion and lack of harmony.

A Systems Perspective on Sustainability, Supply Chain Management- The Intelligent Choice

18 May

As we approach the mid-point in 2011, the tea leaves of the economic recovery have ‘sustainability’ in supply chain planning and management firming up as a key “rebuilding” block in company activities.  Two recent studies from two different continents bear that notion out.  First, consultancy BearingPoint Ireland has released a report which says two-thirds of companies surveyed in Europe believe that a green supply chain is a strategic priority. The report, entitled Green Supply Chain: from awareness to action, is the fourth of a series of “supply chain monitors” from the private consultancy.  The study was conducted among about 600 European decision-makers by Novamétrie between 2010 and 2011, with a position within Supply Chain, Sustainable Development or Industrial Divisions.   Key industries captured includes: consumer goods, transportation, construction, automotive, industrial goods, retail, energy and utilities, chemicals, IT/electronics and pharmaceuticals, among others.

The goal of the report, according to the authors was to summarize “the evolution over the past two years in terms of mindset, maturity and actions efficiency [and] explores the green Supply Chain practices in Europe, in order to identify the significant improvements in the most representative industries. The results clearly underline a growing interest of executive managements in developing products with a low environmental impact. What was seen as a constraint is now considered as an opportunity.”

Executive Management Mandates, Reputational Risk Management Are Key Drivers

A notable “inflexion” occurred between this survey round and prior surveys.  For instance, in 2008, findings suggested that supply chain ‘greening’ was primarily being driven by important environmental and regulatory developments (such as REACH, WEE, RoHS or the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme).  Now, with compliance programs associated with these initiatives firmly entrenched or in initial development, the drivers appear to be shifting toward meeting internal executive management commitments and addressing reputation management and/or consumer demands.  In other words, according to the report, “Environmental actions presently address new constraints and motives, which are more mature and integrated to companies’ decision processes.” Key findings from BearingPoint’s report include:

  • 70% of surveyed companies declare that green Supply Chain is a true economical lever.
  • For 47% of the companies, the return on investment of a green Supply Chain is reached within 3 years.
  • More than half of European companies now use environmental criteria to assess their Supply Chain performance: share of recycled packaging material, CO2 emissions.
  • Two-thirds of companies adopted or plan to adopt a green policy for their purchases.
  • Manufacturers must be able to measure and reduce their carbon footprint if they are to succeed on export markets
  • Over half of the respondents in the survey said they did not renew contracts with suppliers who did not respect their green charter.
  • Buyers are preferably choosing suppliers with certified processes such as ISO 14001.

According to Bearing Points recent press release, Irish Exporters Association chief executive, John Whelan, said: “There is no question that Irish businesses which produce transparently environmentally positive products, delivered by carbon neutral logistics services will succeed on international markets.”

Sustainability Drivers Both Inside and Out the ‘Four Walls’

In yet another study, Prime Advantage, a buying consortium for midsized manufacturers, unveiled its seventh (2011) Prime Advantage Group Outlook (GO) Survey.  This survey queried small and midsized North American manufacturers, and found that more than 80 percent of North American companies surveyed indicated that they developing more sustainable or energy-efficient products largely driven by customer requirements and compliance regulations.  According to the study, “the biggest driving factors behind these changes are customer requirements (80 percent), followed by compliance regulations (53 percent) and shareholder directives (12 percent). In addition, 57 percent of respondents have also started buying more sustainable indirect products for internal consumption.”

A Systems Perspective Breeds Competitive Intelligence

The Bearing Point study made a statement that caught my eye and for which I wholeheartedly agree.  Identifying with a systems-based mindset that recognizes the intrinsic and realized value sustainability-focused business management is a critical fulcrum for green supply chain practices. I noted in a post last fall that The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution author Peter Senge argued (in the October Harvard Business Review) that to make progress on environmental issues, organizations must understand that they’re part of a larger system. Senge also makes a great point that companies will be in a better competitive position if they understand the larger system that they operate within and to work with people you haven’t worked with before.

I’ve cited companies like Hewlett-Packard and Danisco as supply chain innovators in their product sectors.  These companies, among other innovators like Intel, P&G, IBM, GE and others, who’ve viewed supply chain in a systematic or holistic manner, organizations successfully have been applying that “big-picture thinking” needed to be truly innovative. Doing so can create leverage points that companies never realized they had before with their suppliers.

Clearly, the environmental (and often the social) footprint of a product extends beyond the four walls of the company who “brands” the product.  This footprint extends upstream and downstream, and must capture, control or influence inputs and outputs all along the way.  Some of the largest footprints (like energy and carbon) lie upstream or in the final hands of the consumers.  This is why leading companies are rethinking the global extents of their supply chains, exploring local sourcing options and implementing other operational efficiencies.

The results of the recent surveys indicate that companies in a wide number of sectors are waking up to the fact that sustainability is more than business innovation- it’s business intelligence.

“Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe”- Selecting Best Conflict-Free Minerals Supply Chain Sourcing Strategies (Part 3)

10 May

(Photo courtesy of Julien Harneis under a Creative Commons license)

Part 1 of this series highlighted the issues, regulatory and supply chain complexities and efforts by industry to tighten the control of precious minerals sourcing.  Part 2 of the series dove a bit deeper into efforts by key manufacturers in how they are auditing, validating and tracing the conflict minerals supply chain.  The post also presented some ideas on and what responsibilities non-governmental organizations have had in shaping the debate over conflict minerals, and the roles or responsibilities that we as consumers should take in this thorny human rights- environmental impacts meets consumer products issue.

The final part of this series highlights specific international guidance and steps that industries and consumers can and are taking to proactively address supply chain minerals sourcing and maintain a high level of corporate social responsibility.

But before I go further, a postscript to Part 2.  Following my second post, I was contacted by Suzanne Fallender of Intel with an update on the company’s efforts that I described in the second post.  In her response, for which he apologized for the delay, she provided a copy of a white paper prepared and posted in late April.  In it, the company states “we continue to work diligently to put the systems and processes in place that will enable us, with a high degree of confidence, to declare that our products are conflict-free. Our efforts on conflict minerals are  focused in three main areas: (1) driving accountability and ownership within our own supply chain through smelter reviews and validation audits; (2) partnering with key industry associations, including the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI); and (3) working with both governmental agencies and NGOs to achieve in-region sourcing”. 

The Intel white paper concludes by stating “From the time we became aware of the potential for conflict-metals from the DRC to enter our supply chain, we have responded to this issue with a sense of urgency and resolve. We have approached this issue like we would address other significant business challenges at Intel.”  I believe Intel and their efforts to date bear that out.  They are encouraging comments on their plans and efforts, which can be submitted at http://www.intel.com/about/corporateresponsibility/contactus/index.htm.

By the way, I am still waiting on Apples reply to my inquiries.

Comparing Proposed Steps to Action

As mentioned in the second post, the OECD guidance, Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, serves as a common reference for all suppliers and other stakeholders in the mineral supply chain.  The guidance also meshes well with current industry-driven schemes like the EICC and GeSi and AIGG guidance, and clarifies expectations regarding responsible supply chain management of minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas.

The OECD guidance approaches minerals sourcing and supply chain management from a “risk management” and “due diligence” perspective and offers a framework to promote accountability and transparency.  A fundamental problem with the OECD guidance is that it’s voluntary.  And with any voluntary guidance, there’s reluctance or little pressure to fully commit to implementation, unless key market or financial drivers threaten or pressure companies to do so.  Also, what is challenging as mentioned before are the many steps and sometimes fragmented nature of the minerals sourcing supply chain.  The myriad of hands that minerals often pass through on the way to the smelter, and in turn on to intermediate and final product manufacturers is numerous and admittedly difficult to accurately trace. Risk levels are particularly high when minerals are derived from the artisanal mining operations (as compared to larger scale operations).  Consequently, being able to control and influence risk along the entire minerals sourcing network and assure that adequate due diligence mechanisms are in place to keep track of intermediary activities is daunting to say the least.  All the more reason to seek ways to streamline the sourcing process by limiting the number of materials exchanges, stepping up oversight, and disengaging activities with underperforming  or high risk suppliers

The OECD suggests a five step framework for risk-based due diligence in the mineral supply chain  that strongly advocates for traceability and accounting systems for both upstream and downstream supply chain organizations:

Step 1: Establish strong company management systems

Step 2: Identify and assess risks in the supply chain

Step 3: Design and implement a strategy to respond to identified risks

Step 4: Carry out independent third-party audit of smelter/refiner’s due diligence practices

Step 5: Report annually on supply chain due diligence

In some contrast to the OECD guidance, the Enough Project offers its own set of valuable ideas and frameworks for the electronics sector and others working in east Africa to follow.  Enough Project, in its recent report entitled  Certification: The Path to Conflict-Free Minerals from Congo , states that international certification efforts are vital to long-term solutions to conflict minerals issues  and on assuring revenue “transparency”.  The Enough Project offers its “five key lessons that should be incorporated into a certification scheme for conflict minerals:

  • A “conductor” is needed to convene a high-level diplomatic partnership on certification and help transform words into action. A “conductor”—a leader with gravitas and political support—is needed to bring stakeholders to the table and to issue a call to action. President Bill Clinton provided a precedent for this when he called together companies and sweatshop labor campaigners in 1996, resulting in the Fair Labor Association certification process.
  • Certification should be governed and funded by a multi-stakeholder body that includes companies, governments, and NGOs. The legitimacy of a process rests on a multi-stakeholder governing and funding framework that ensures accountability.
  • Certification must include independent third-party auditing and monitoring. Regular independent audits assure the public that the process is credible, and on-the-ground monitoring ensures accuracy.
  • Transparency of audits and data is essential to making certification work. Certification processes are moving rapidly towards full disclosure of data and audits.
  • Certification must have teeth. Certification can only work if its standards have meaning on the ground and are enforced through penalties for noncompliance.”

The Enough Project report calls on the United States, through Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, to convene a senior partnership on certification with industry and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).  The report also states that “the United States must act quickly, as minerals traders in Congo are already seeking alternative, opaque markets for their minerals. An internationally accepted certification process would deter this development.”  Last week, a letter writing campaign launched encouraging U.S. Secretary of State Clinton to state a public U.S. position on this issue and convene a high-level partnership on certification with leading electronics and end-user companies, together with Congolese President Kabila and regional governments.  The goal of this summit would be “aimed at unifying the regional and industry-led initiatives and gaining consensus on a system of independent checks on the ground”.

Meantime, Conflict-Free Smelter the industry protocols proposed and under development by the EICC and GeSi are focused on two key areas targeted at what they characterize as the “pinch point” in the supply chain- the smelter:

Business Process Review: Evaluate company policies and or codes of conduct relating to conflict minerals

Material Analysis Review: 1) Conduct a complete material analysis to demonstrate that all sources of materials procured by the smelting company are conflict-free; 2) Evaluate whether source locations are consistent with known mining locations; and 3) Establish whether material identified as “recycled” meets the definition of recycled materials.

The CFS program is moving forward in spite of the delay by the SEC for final rulemaking.   CFS assessments for tantalum began in the fourth quarter, 2010 and are expected to be posted on the EICC website starting this month.  Tin, tungsten and gold are planned to commence later this year.

What Makes a Good Auditor?

In addition to “what” types of certification schemes are needed and how they should be administered or governed, there’s the matter of “who” should do the auditing and third- part certifying.  What I see as critical here is Step 4 of the OECD process and Step 3 of the Enough Projects documents, both of which the EICC and GeSi programs are attempting to fulfill.  However, key to this audit process is the “independence” and competency factor as well as what qualifications auditors have to perform these assessments.  The Enough Project gleaned through numerous frameworks in order to develop its proposed certification approach, which deserves careful consideration.  In addition, while the SEC has yet to clarify the specifics of the Dodd-Frank provision, ELM Consulting’s Lawrence Heim in a recent AgMetal Miner series, notes:

… There are a number of auditor certifications that could be considered applicable to this scope of audit, but none should be considered to automatically qualify an auditor for these engagements. These audits require a unique blend of expertise in general auditing processes/procedures, environmental knowledge, accounting basics, chemistry/industrial processes, procurement controls, contracts and supply chain fundamentals. Finally, the auditor must be able to execute the engagement in accordance with the auditor/engagement standards of the Government Auditing Standards, such as the standards for Attestation Engagements or the standards for Performance Audits (GAO–07–731G) GAO-07-731G contains standards on auditor independence.

Associations consist of multiple members who have varying degrees of business relationships with each other and the audited entities, putting the auditor in a position of serving “multiple masters” relative to influence over the audit scope, process, information, report and payment. Our research and inquiries to qualified experts in SEC auditing requirements indicates that there appears to be no precedent in any other legally-required audit in the US that has been fulfilled in this manner.

Comparisons and Contrasts

I had the chance last week to listen in on an informative webinar by STR Responsible Sourcing.  The company is an accredited monitor for numerous social certification programs, and partners with many organizations that share our mission of assuring responsible sourcing practices.  The company compared governmental, regional, industry schemes for addressing minerals mined in conflict regions.  The figure below summarizes each of the initiatives and target areas.

According to STR, there are a series of challenges lying ahead for both upstream suppliers (e.g. miners (artisanal and small-scale or large-scale producers), local traders or exporters from the country of mineral origin, international concentrate traders, mineral re-processors and smelters/refiners) and downstream users (e.g. metal traders and exchanges, component manufacturers, product manufacturers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and retailers) of precious minerals.   Downstream Supply Chain parties are faced with some unique challenges, namely:

  • No clearly defined requirements of “due diligence”
  • No guarantees for “conflict-free”
  • Limited transparency in upstream supply chain
  • No traceability in downstream supply chain
  • No generally accepted standard / certification

For the upstream supply chain, primary challenges include:

  • Complexity of the supply chain
  • Difficulty to include small and artisanal mining
  • Challenges for implementation of traceability schemes in the DRC due to militarization of mines and widespread lack of formalization of small scale mining

Meanwhile, according to STR,  the downstream supply chain might consider the following approaches to start on the path of responsible sourcing of precious minerals:

  • Implement a procurement policy and due diligence procedures
  • Develop consistent supplier engagement processes (awareness raising, communication and training) throughout the supply chain
  • Monitor downstream suppliers’ due diligence procedures and gather data on organization of supply chain (desktop or onsite)

For the upstream supply chain consider the following:

  • Support certification schemes and industry efforts
  • Join certified trading chains / buy certified products
  • Government lobbying

Where to Start

If you are a manufacturer of electronics, jewelry, automotive parts or other goods that may be subject to sourcing through the DRC or other conflict prone areas of the world, consider (at a minimum), the following steps:

  • Read the OECD and Enough Project guidance documents to understand the issues and risks associated with responsible sourcing
  • Stay tuned into the progress that your industry associations are achieving to bring a better sense of responsible management to this issue
  • Follow the development of the SEC conflict mineral guidelines
  • Work with procurement, operations, legal, environmental and communications staff to craft a procurement policy & selection of supplier selection process (along the lines that Intel, HP, Motorola and others have)
  • Request origin and chain of custody documentation for purchases to assure traceability
  • Establish adequate record-keeping system
  • Ensure that relevant staff is trained on procurement policies, procedures to receive material and identification of potential conflict material

If I were to look at where industry was a few short years ago on this issue compared to now, there’s no doubt that increased minerals sourcing tracing and accountability in conflict-free minerals is improved.   The system as presently planned, in pilot stages or in process certainly has some flaws as most new initiatives have.  But given the industry, region, national and international levels of cooperation that is rapidly becoming evident, I’ve no doubt that the positive outcomes will be great.

Aaron Hall, Policy Analyst at the Enough Project in a recent interview with Resource Investing News said “It’s a start. You have to take small steps forward. The fact that governments and industry are thinking about this shows concern and to a large extent they are willing to tackle the problem,” said Hall. “I think it’s remarkable that the multiple stakeholders involved in this process have been able to come together in such a short amount of time and make progress towards setting up a regional certification regime for these minerals.”

Manufacturing, Suppliers & Retailers- Partnering for Better Chemical Data in the Supply Chain

27 Apr

(Photo Courtesy of Milosz1 under the Creative Commons license)

“WARNING: This area contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Now that I have your attention, have you ever seen one of these warnings posted outside your local convenience store or place of business?  Well, this is one of the many ways that consumers and workers are informed of the presence of chemicals in our everyday lives and the responsibilities that companies have to notify the public and workers of potentially hazardous substances.

This past week, GreenBiz editor Jonathan Bardeline highlighted a cross-sectoral effort by a unique assemblage of manufacturers and retailers, focused on meeting consumers demand for less toxic products. “Meeting Customers’ Needs for Chemical Data,” is a tool with information from major companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Walmart and Hewlett-Packard, SC Johnson, Nike and Seagate, detailing how they interact with chemical suppliers.  The scope of the document focuses on assisting suppliers to product fabricators and formulators[1] , and steps they can take to collaborate to bring safer products to the consumer.

The guidance document was prepared by the Green Chemistry in Commerce Council (GC3)[2], which promotes itself as a “business-to-business network which provides an open forum for participants to discuss and share information and experiences related to advancing green chemistry, design for environment, and sustainable supply chain management.  The projects focus is to “provide the opportunity for cross-sectoral collaboration on enhancing chemical data sharing along supply chains”.   The guidance provides clear signals to suppliers on the needs that fabricators and formulators have for chemical data and the consequences of not providing such data.

Chemical Data 101

To begin to understand what we are really talking about, let’s start at the beginning.  The document lays a great foundation by describing what types of chemical data exist.  Basically, chemical data includes, but is not limited to, the following types of information:

1. Chemical name, trade name, and CAS number of all chemical ingredients in an article or chemical mixture, including known impurities.

2. Function of a chemical ingredient in an article or chemical mixture (e.g. catalyst, plasticizer, monomer, etc.).

3. Human health and ecotoxicological characteristics of chemical ingredients and chemicals used in making that ingredient, as well as their physical safety properties such as flammability.

4. Potential for human or environmental exposure to chemical ingredients in an article or chemical mixture.

Much of the chemical data that exists for products is typically captured in Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or Safety Data Sheets (SDS).  A great deal of the chemical data must be made available to employees coming into contact with these materials in the workplace through Hazard Communication rules or (in the case of California, Proposition 65).  Other chemical disclosure requirements like TSCA, REACH, RoHS, WEEE[3] are in place to assure proper notification to customers of the potential of toxic constituents and to meet country or sector specific restricted materials rules.

(Photo Courtesy of Nebarnix under Creative Commons license)

Generally, this information is not necessarily required to be made available to the public unless that are product safety related issues i.e. lead or BPA free products.  The SC3 guide correctly notes that “MSDSs are often a company’s only resource for chemical ingredient, hazard, and toxicity information. While they could be more useful, they are better than having no information at all. Unfortunately, MSDSs fall short of providing enough information to satisfy the chemical data needs of many fabricators and formulators.”  This is primarily due to the fact that many MSDS’s do not contain all product constituents, different MSDS’s exist for a similar chemical constituent offered by different manufacturers, and MSDS’s do they apply  to specific products or intermediate products.

Ways Leading Companies are Engaging Suppliers

There are already many efforts already underway within various product sector supply chains to actively share relevant chemical information between fabricators, formulators, and their suppliers, and this report has no shortage of fantastic examples.  When engaging suppliers, the report suggests a few basic steps that every company depending on a deep supplier base must consider taking:

  • Written guidance detailing chemical information needed
  • Supplier questionnaires with specific questions addressing chemical ingredients, concentrations, toxicity information on chemical ingredients, etc.
  • Web portals for chemical data entry.
  • Training suppliers on chemical data reporting requirements

For example, the report cites Hewlett-Packard and how they developed a web portal that suppliers use to enter chemical data (the company uses the SAP/Environmental Health and Safety module to process the information.  SC Johnson provides training to suppliers on its internal Greenlist™ raw material rating system. The company focuses particularly on obtaining toxicity data from its suppliers for scoring chemicals and materials.

Managing Confidential and Proprietary Information

Notwithstanding suppliers efforts to obtain data, there are natural concerns that many suppliers may have in releasing confidential and/or proprietary information.  The GC3 guide offers some valuable advice and examples that companies can use to protect the often proprietary nature of their products.  As I have reported before, high-end office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller executed hundreds of Non-Disclosure agreements with its Tier 1 -4 suppliers in its effort to attain zero-landfill waste status and reduce its overall product life-cycle footprint. Method uses a third-party reviewer to evaluate all chemical ingredients for safety prior to their selection for a product formulation.  And SC Johnson uses three layers of confidentiality protection depending on the public availability, types, quantities and specialty formulations of the materials.

On the regulatory front, the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency last year that it is taking steps to increase the public’s access to chemical information of consumer products, by restricting efforts chemical manufactures to keep chemical information confidential, except under narrower circumstances.  This only underscores the increased emphasis on product transparency, pushing the envelope on placing proprietary information in the public domain, and the possible negative consequences on a company’s business competitiveness.  Or maybe such openness can have a positive business outcome too!

Chemical Industry and the Consumer …Two Green Peas in a Pod

This development gels nicely with the issues recently brought up at the European Petrochemical Association Interactive Supply Chain Workshop that I attended. During my keynote speech on sustainability efforts by the chemical industry, I noted that a number of key indicators were coming to light, particularly in the chemical industry. I noted growing customer concern, public-driven mandates, product preferences, and growing demand for supply chain transparency. I noted too that customers and consumers want to know what’s in that product, it’s environmental footprint, what chemicals it contains, the carbon emissions generated in manufacture.

For many year the internationally accepted Responsible Care Initiative has been a hallmark effort within the chemical industry in safeguarding materials transport and driving innovation in manufacturing, and making safer products. Along with Responsible Care, there has been increased emphasis on environmental and “greener” specification in logistics, and the expansion of communications relating to toxic and hazardous materials. Now, the industry is seeing the growth of environmental indexing, environmental footprints and benchmarking, and less toxic) products in response to the demands of consumer-facing customers such as WalMart and other major retailers.

There is, as the GC3 document states “ a need for communication to be a two-way street to enhance the ability of suppliers and fabricators, formulators, and retailers to work more effectively together in advancing transparency, product safety, and sustainability.”

Get Your Green Chemistry Hat On

Demands for chemical data are likely to increase as government agencies, customers and consumers ask for detailed information on life-cycle impacts of chemicals, materials, and products.  Therefore, its advantageous for suppliers to jump ahead of coming trends, work with their customers to identify data gaps and work collaboratively to fill them.

Photo: © Sebastian Kaulitzki - Fotolia.com

So if you are a supplier just starting to collect chemical data for your customers; or if you are currently responding to customers’ requests for chemical information and additional information that to fulfill your customers ‘requirements; or are a chemical user that needs to communicate with your suppliers about their chemical data; it’s time to begin gathering this value-added data.

The GC3 Guidance provides some great advice, offers solid tools and case studies to drive the business case, and tools to effectively engage both upstream suppliers and downstream customers to green up the supply chain, support product stewardship,  and make consumer products safer.


[1] The document defines “fabricator” as a manufacturer (or a company that directs suppliers to fabricate) of an “article”. The document defines an” article” as a “finished product, component of a product (such as a circuit board), or source material (such as a textile or leather) sold to other organizations or directly to consumers.  The document also describes a “formulator” as a manufacturer of a chemical preparation or a mixture of substances, such as paint, liquid cleaning products, adhesives or a surfactant package”.

[2] a project of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (http://www.greenchemistryandcommerce.org)

[3] Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE)

Conflict Minerals- Can Consumers, Manufacturers & Policy-Makers Rise to the Challenge? – Part 2

21 Apr

Part 1 of this series highlighted the issues, regulatory and supply chain complexities and efforts by industry to tighten the control of precious minerals sourcing.  This is especially critical in developing nations, where human trafficking, regional conflict and lack of environmental laws and basic human rights are the rule rather than the exception.  This post will look into a few examples of key manufacturers and efforts to date audit, validate and trace the precious minerals supply chain and what roles non-governmental organizations and we consumers have played so far in addressing this prickly issue.

“Conflict Areas” 101

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued a comprehensive guidance document in 2010 entitled Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals From Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas.  In this document, the OECD defined conflict-affected and high-risk areas as identified by the presence of armed conflict, widespread violence or other risks of harm to people.

“Armed conflict may take a variety of forms, such as a conflict of international or non-international character, which may involve two or more states, or may consist of wars of liberation, or insurgencies, civil wars, etc. High-risk areas may include areas of political instability or repression, institutional weakness, insecurity, collapse of civil infrastructure and widespread violence. Such areas are often characterised by widespread human rights abuses and violations of national or international law.”

Recent efforts by global industry associations and grassroots efforts by non-governmental organizations such as the Enough Project and its Raise Hope for Congo initiative have shed a good deal of light on a previously ignored issue. Unlike other countries, ore extraction in the Congo is both cheap and lucrative for the militias that control many of the artisanal mines. There has been widespread reporting about how child laborers are kidnapped from neighboring nations to work under forced conditions in the mines, (where miners often work for an average of $1 to $5 per day). An excellent article that describes the political and institutional issues that affect conflict affected areas, see the article Behind the Problem of Conflict Minerals in DR Congo: Governance by the International Crisis Group.  This analysis places a lack of governance  within the Congo squarely as a cause of the rampant growth of the conflict minerals trade and diversion of proceeds from sale to armed militias.  Despite the “technical assistance” the author says the country receives from outside organizations, this “is not enough to compensate for the notorious lack of administrative capacity”.

Industry Under the Microscope

Courtesy David Lieberman/Flickr (Creative Commons license)

The intensity of recent news reports and discerning lack of detail in publicly reported data to date begs the question- have Intel and Apple really completely taken the “conflict” out their precious minerals sourcing, as recent headlines suggested?  Or has their recent announcement been taken out of context and only another (positive) phase in their supply chain sourcing strategy.   And if neither actually procures these materials from the Congo, are they merely shifting the issues to Asia?

Intel

To start answering these questions, I looked more deeply into the efforts to date by Intel to “get the DRC out” of the sustainable sourcing question.  According to Suzanne Fallender of Intel on their corporate social responsibility blog, the company has made significant strides since 2009 to stay ahead of this issue.  Specifically, according to Ms. Fallender (who I attempted to reach out to but had not yet returned my inquiries), Intel initiated a series of efforts in 2009 (prior to the CFS program), including: 

  • Posted its Conflict-Free Statement about metals on its Supplier Site
  • Requested that its suppliers verify the sources of metals used in the products they sell us
  • Increased the level of internal management review and oversight, as well as  transparency and disclosure on this topic in this report
  • Engaged with leading NGOs and other stakeholders to seek their input and recommendations.
  • Hosted an industry working session at its offices in Chandler, Arizona in September 2009 with more than 30 representatives from mining companies, traders, smelters, purchasers, and users of tantalum to address the issue of conflict minerals from the DRC.
  • Funded a study with EICC members on defining metals used in the supply chain, and continues working on a similar project to increase supply chain transparency for cobalt, tantalum, and tin.

Important to note is that Intel was the first company in the electronics supply chain to conduct on-site smelter reviews. Since the end of 2010, Intel has visited more than 30 smelters to assess if any of its suppliers were sourcing metal from conflict zones in the.   According to Ted Jeffries, Director of Fab Services and Consumables at Intel (who I also attempted to reach for this article), he recently stated “I don’t know that we have a complete handle on the whole supply chain, but we at least have a better handle on the nuances”.   Despite a letter campaign to its suppliers, Intel elected to visit each site and see for themselves to verify what was being self reported. “For the most part, for the Intel supply chain, the smelters that we’ve visited have been very truthful. There have been little caveats here and there, but for the most part, we can trace all of their sources to plants in Australia, South America and other parts of the world,” Jeffries said at the Strategic Metals for National Security and Clean Energy Conference in Washington D.C. in mid March.

“It really takes someone stepping up to the plate and taking a leadership role and taking a risk on a strategy. We can sit around and debate these things until the cows come home and nothing will change. At the end of the day, if we want to move forward on this debate, someone needs to make a strategic decision and start moving in that direction”. -Ted Jeffries (Intel)

Apple and Hewlett-Packard

As I’ve reported in Part 1 of this series, the multitude of supply chain layers and sourcing channels developed over the years may be a difficult weave to untangle (often 5-10 layers between the mine and the end product).  Take Apple, who (according to its recently released 2011 Supplier Responsibility Progress report ) has 142 suppliers using tin; these suppliers source from 109 smelters around the world. As a key participant in the EICC/GeSi CFS initiative, smelter audits are in process.  Additional efforts to contact Apple supply chain and sustainable sourcing staff have been unanswered.  Unlike Apples sub-par sustainability efforts with its Chinese electronics supply chain, it’s heartening that the company is taking some leading action in this area.

Hewlett-Packard says, “[T]hese issues are far removed from HP, typically five or more tiers from our direct suppliers.”  But they have gone a long way in developing an aggressive auditing, tracking and reporting mechanism. HP and Intel have published the names of their leading suppliers for the 3T metals, as well as some smelters.  On April 8th, HP issued its revised Supply Chain Social and Environmental Responsibility Policy as part of list supplier compliance program (which HP began developing ten years ago). HP’s suppliers are expected to “ensure that parts and products supplied to HP are DRC conflict-free”. Moreover suppliers are to establish policies, due diligence frameworks, and management systems, consistent with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas.

Confronting Our Electronics Addiction


I’m a Mac and I’ve got a Dirty Little Secret”.  That was the title of parody of the Apple ad campaign, issued last year by the Enough Project.  While the video took a soft-handed approach to helping consumers make a visceral connection with conflict minerals, it also suggested that consumers’ purchasing power can influence corporate sourcing behaviors…and they can.

Last year, Newsweek magazine looked at this issue square in the eye.   The article stated “It takes a lot to snap people out of apathy about Africa’s problems. But in the wake of Live Aid and Save Darfur, a new cause stands on the cusp of going mainstream. It’s the push to make major electronics companies (manufacturers of cell phones, laptops, portable music players, and cameras) disclose whether they use “conflict minerals… Congo raises especially disturbing issues for famous tech brand names that fancy themselves responsible corporate citizens. As Newsweek also reported, the Enough Project and its allies “believe awareness drives better policy. So as we lovingly thumb our latest high-tech device, perhaps some self-reflection: after all, the final point in the supply chain is us.”

As an effort to raise consumer awareness of efforts that companies are (or are not) taking, the Enough Project[1] surveyed the 21 largest electronics companies to characterize progress made toward establishing documented and verifiable conflict-free supply chains in Congo.  The project ranked electronics companies in and four other product sectors on actions in five categories that have significant impact on the conflict minerals trade: tracing, auditing, certification, legislative support, and stakeholder engagement.  Four levels of progress (ranging from Gold Star to Red) were established based on efforts to date and suggestions to shore up perceived weaknesses.  The user-friendly ranking can be used by consumers to support purchasing decisions and offers a way to get in contact with each company to communicate calls to action. 

Enough Projects analysis (as shown in the graphic) indicates that six electronics companies are leading industry efforts to address conflict minerals, while two-thirds of the appeared to be taking limited action.  This graph also suggests that the bottom -third are way behind the industry curve.

Meanwhile, the auto, jewelry, industrial machinery, medical devices, and aerospace industries are well behind the electronics sector and only now beginning to address the role that conflict minerals may play their respective supply chains.  I’ll be watching with interest what the Automotive Industry Action Group does.  So the opportunity for direct end-consumer advocacy to influence corporate social responsibility in sourcing is bountiful.

Evidently, the biggest challenges to grabbing the conflict minerals issue by the reins is in untangling the convoluted supplier network, building a robust product traceability and independent verification process, and enacting sound policy that drives accountability and transparency among all stakeholders.  Not an easy task, but compared to years past, a vast improvement for sure.  The final part of this series will highlight specific international guidance and steps that industries and consumers can continue taking (while we wait for the SEC rules to get finalized) to proactively address supply chain minerals sourcing and maintain a high level of corporate social responsibility.




[1]  The Enough Projects focus is on conducting field research, consumer and issues advocacy, and communications to support a grassroots consumer movement.

Conflict Minerals- The “Perfect Storm” of CSR, Sustainability, Politics and Supply Chain Management- Part 1

15 Apr

Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev/Enough Project (under Creative Commons License)

Last week, it was widely reported that both Intel Corporations and Apple Computers had pulled the plug on sourcing of precious minerals typically used in the manufacturing of its high-tech products from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  These basic building blocks of our cell phones, computers and other consumer electronics are widely known as “conflict minerals”, mainly because of the large spread connection the “artisanal” and industrial mines that produce the materials and the flow of money to supply arms to rebels fighting in the DRC.  Conflict minerals are to the 21st Century high-tech world what “blood” diamonds were to the 19th and 20th centuries.

Apple, Intel and other U.S. based corporations have signed onto the Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program, which applies to shipments of tin ore, tungsten, gold and coltan from Congo and its neighbors.  The CFS program demands mineral processors prove purchases don’t contribute to conflict in eastern Congo[1]. The regulations were developed by the Washington-based Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition  (EICC) and Global E-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) in Brussels (Belgium), representing electronics companies including Intel and Apple, Dell etc.  The program is being marshaled by the GeSI Extractives Work Group, and summarized on the EICC website.

Regulatory Framework

The CFS initiative was established in response to the conflict minerals provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010), signed into law last July (page 838 of the 848 page Act  to be exact). Section 1502 requires companies to make an annual disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding whether potential conflict minerals used in their products or in their manufactur­ing processes originated in the DRC or an adjoining country. If the minerals were sourced from these countries, companies must report on the due diligence measures used to track the sources of the minerals if they were derived from the DRC or neighboring nations. In addition, the Act will require a 3rd party audit to verify the accuracy of the company’s disclosure. Finally, a declaration of “DRC conflict-free” must be provided to support that goods containing minerals were not obtained in a manner that could “directly or indirectly … finance armed groups in the DRC or an adjoining country”.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was to have issued regulations to stem purchases of conflict minerals this week.  However, on Monday the SEC delayed issuance of the specific rules to the August-December timeframe.  Ultimately, U.S. companies will be required to audit mineral supplies next year to identify purchases that may be tainted by the Congo fighting, according to draft SEC regulations.

Two groups of companies will be directly impacted by the Conflict Minerals Law: companies that are directly regulated by the SEC, and companies that are not SEC-regulated, but are suppliers to impacted companies. Starting April 1, the CFS scheme began requiring due diligence and full traceability on all material from the Congo and other neighboring conflict zones.  Then, these audits, or at least their summaries, are to be incorporated into SEC regulatory findings (in some manner, as yet to be defined by the SEC).

California Steps Up

Meanwhile, this past Tuesday, committee of the California State Senate passed a Senate Bill 861 Tuesday that will curb the use of conflict minerals from Congo.  The 9-1 vote in the Governmental Organization Committee was a first step to making California the first “conflict-free state”.   If it passes the full assembly, the bill would prohibit the state government from contracting with companies that fail to comply with federal regulations on conflict minerals.

According to D.C. attorney Sarah Altshuller (@saltshuller) “The California legislation, even if passed, is unlikely to impact many companies: it would apply only to companies against which the SEC has filed a civil or administrative enforcement action. That said, California’s legislative activity reflects significant stakeholder concern, as well as advocacy activity, regarding the ways in which the sourcing of specific minerals may be contributing to the ongoing conflict in the DRC.”  Many engaged in the initial debate were concerned too that the state was too early to move forward in the absence of final SEC rules.

Supply Chain Ripples?

Courtesy of rasberrah (Creative Commons Licence)

Leon Kaye (@leonkaye), reporting last week in Triple Pundit, “The CFS identifies smelters through independent third-party auditors who can assess that raw materials did not originate from sources that profit off the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Now Intel and Apple have stopped purchasing minerals from this region, which has transformed a voluntary program to what the president of an exporter association in Congo called “an embargo.”

Also, as  reported also last week by Bloomberg, “There is a de-facto embargo, it’s very clear,” said John Kanyoni, president of the mineral exporters association of North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We’re committed to continue with all these programs. But at the same time we’re traveling soon to Asia to find alternatives.”

Defacto or preemptive, this move is long overdue and is bound to bring to light an elephant in the room that manufacturers and consumers alike have been quick to run from and avoid.   I’ve reported in recent posts my dismay over the approach that Apple has taken in addressing its supply chain sustainability issues, especially in Asia.  The fact that Apple has electively chosen, along with Intel to be a first mover to shake the supply chain up and seek to right some corporate social responsibility wrongs is encouraging.  However as my colleague Mr. Kaye correctly notes, neither may have had a choice.

As noted in an article by Future 500’s Juliette Terzieff  this week, “buyers for Chinese, Indian and other countries’ manufacturers who are not part of the CFS program or subject to U.S. legislative requirements coming in effect in early 2012 face no regulatory requirements to ensuring their purchases are conflict-free. This could prove particularly valuable for those seeking to sidestep controls given that Chinese demand for minerals like copper are predicted to rise 7% every year between 2010 and 2014.”

How Many Companies are affected?

In an excellent analysis by ELM Consulting and reported in a series on AgMetal Miner last fall, the amount of companies falling into the two previously mentioned categories is unclear.  According to the analysis:

For the first category, the SEC estimated that 1,199 companies will require a full Conflict Minerals Report. The methodology for determining this number is worthy of mention. The SEC began by finding the amount of tantalum produced by the DRC in comparison to global production (15% – 20%). The Commission selected the higher figure of 20% and multiplied that by the total number of affected issuers, which they stated is 6,000. (75 Fed. Reg. 80966.)  Clearly, this methodology does not consider many additional factors and the actual number of companies that will require the full audit is certain to be higher. For the second category – the suppliers – no estimate has been made.  But if one anticipates 10 suppliers (we have data indicating that the number of suppliers ranges from one to well over 100 for a single directly-regulated company; an average of 10 suppliers may be conservative, especially given the wide range of conflict mineral-containing products) for each company directly regulated, the number of additional companies impacted would be 12,000.

Verifying Mineral Sources Is Tough Work

Photo Courtesy of The Enough Project

As I noted in a past post on “materiality”, surveys taken from manufacturers suggest a lack of confidence in being able to confidently trace conflict minerals to the source (excluding the likelihood that illegal extracted minerals are also blending into the marketplace).  So you could see the difficulty in companies demonstrating due diligence in tracing the chain of materials flows from point of origin.

According to Treehugger ace writer Jami Heimbuch , plugging the supply chain to assure the at all minerals come from conflict free zones is no easy task.  Ms. Heimbuch reported that even Apple has noted how it is nearly impossible to know the exact source.

The proposed SEC rules do attempt to take on suppliers who have “influence” over contract manufacturers who provide name brand products for larger companies.  The proposed rules also apply to retailers of private-brand products and generic brands.   Finally there is some ambiguity around how scrap electronic waste is to be treated.   The SEC has not defined what is recycled or scrap material and manufacturers have a fair degree of latitude in their disclosure reports as to how they will treat scrap/recycled material.

The BBC reports that Rick Goss, of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), whose members include Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Nokia, states that “it will be impossible to make sure that not one single illicit shipment entered the supply chain….It is too complicated in terms of corruption – illegal taxation – to absolutely guarantee that an illegal shipment did not enter the supply chain, regardless of all private and public sector efforts,’ he warns. The minerals could go elsewhere. Asian smelters are sourcing from any number of countries.”

Summary

If it is impossible to track the source of all the minerals going into the stream, then the big question is what countries and companies will do to fix inadequate governance and systems.   And if U.S. companies shift their sourcing to other nations, will this be enough?  Is global manufacturing merely playing “kick the can”?

The conflict minerals issue just may be the “perfect storm” that combines elements of resource consumption, consumerism, corporate social responsibility, supply chain management, politics and product stewardship.

The next post in the series will dive a bit deeper into efforts by key manufacturers in how they are auditing, validating and tracing the conflict minerals supply chain and what responsibilities we as consumers have in lessening the impacts of this perfect storm.


[1] As part of the Conflict-Free Smelter program, participating tech companies must provide third-party verification that their processors don’t contain commonly used minerals that fund armed conflicts in Central Africa, specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo. Minerals from Central Africa commonly sourced for tech components include gold, titanium, tungsten and tin; the DRC provides 5 percent of the world’s tin supply, as well as 14 percent of tantalum.

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