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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)

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In Supply Chain Logistics Management, There’s a Reverse Gear–and It’s Green–Part 1

7 Oct

I Love Logistics. That is the new brand “That’s Logistics” ad from UPS– and I love it. Why? First, because it’s a catchy ad and it made me smile. But also, because in the jingle, there’s a line: “carbon footprint reduced, bottom line gets a boost, that’s logistics.” This phrase should be a subtle reminder logistics and supply chain professionals that there is a bottom line angle to towing the “green” line. Read on and you’ll see why.

Today, consumers and authorities expect manufacturers to reduce the waste generated by their products. Therefore waste management has received increasing attention. Enactment of new environmental laws in the past several years—such as the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives—are forcing companies to plan how they will retake possession of goods from end users at the end of a product’s life cycle. But in the face of these regulatory drivers though, being sustainable and environmentally responsible at the reverse supply chain arena is a complex issue. In the international and domestic marketplaces, laws and regulations have been implemented to regulate how manufacturers, collectors, recyclers, refurbishers and material processors should behave in an environmentally responsible manner. Recent movement in the area of electronics recycling and competing approaches for electronic waste management also underscores the challenges of reverse logistics to assure safe, responsible and ethical movement of end of life, post consumer goods

Putting a New Face on Reverse Logistics

Reverse logistics isn’t anything new. The field of study and application of reverse logistics in the supply chain space has at least a 40-year evolutionary history. What is new, though, is the intersection of reverse logistics with social and environmental issues.

Let’s start with a definition or two. Where primary distribution is the flow of products or goods from its origin to the place or point of consumption; reverse logistics involves a secondary channel flowing in the opposite direction. It can comprise such diverse transactions as returns, recalls, and waste management. At this point the product reaches the point of end of life when it consumes its intended value. A traditional definition of reverse logistics comes from Rogers and Tibben-Lembke[1]:

”The process of planning, implementing and controlling the efficient, cost-effective flow of raw material, in-process inventory, finished goods and related information from the point of consumption to the point of origin for the purpose of recapturing or creating value or for proper disposal.”

A less traditional view now being taken more seriously from a sustainability perspective is:

The process of collecting used products and materials from customers to be reused, recycled, or upcycled into other products. This process treats these materials as valuable industrial nutrients instead of disposed of as trash. This is the complement to the traditional supply chain, [logistics] and distribution system used to produce and deliver products to customers. Sustainability Dictionary

This definition supports the realization of a true “closed loop supply chain.” Closed-loop supply chains emphasize the importance of coordinating the forward with the reverse streams. This underscores certain aspects of the cradle to cradle (C2C) concept advanced by McDonough and Braungart[2] and the idea of “extended producer responsibility.” And that is precisely why supply chain and logistics professionals can take a move or two from the C2C playbook and apply their trade–in reverse.

To follow the goods during from design to end of life management then creates many advantages to manufacturers and to end users in the secondary market, such as:

  1. Increasing the types of services to the customer and added revenue streams;
  2. Tracing the life of the product and gathering information related to the life of the product;
  3. Maintaining contact with the customer contact for longer periods of time, thereby increasing brand fidelity;
  4. Managing the activities of recovery in definite periods;
  5. Stimulating up-selling;
  6. Checking the state of the sales or returns in real time

In Part 2, I will present some compelling case studies that demonstrate the value-added characteristics of reverse logistics. Then I will offer up some tips on key questions you might ask to get started on reverse logistics planning and implementation, and who should participate in the process


[1] Going Backwards: Reverse Logistics Trends and Practices Pittsburgh: RLEC Press, 1999

[2] Cradle-to-cradle design: creating a healthy emissions strategy for eco-effective product and system design, Michael Braungart, William McDonough, Andrew Bollinger , Journal of Cleaner Production 15 (2007) 1337-1348

Sustainability, Peter Senge, and the Necessary (Supply Chain) Revolution.

29 Sep

I just finished reading an interview with Peter Senge in the October Harvard Business Review.  Senge, for those of you that are unfamiliar, founded the Society for Organizational Learning, is a faculty member at MIT Sloan School of Management, and the author the The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution.  Senge maintains 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. And while these two skills might seem distinct, in practice they’re interwoven. This is generally because systems are often too complicated for one person to grasp, crossing over many boundaries, both internal and external.  It’s these external boundaries that supply chain management issues begin to become apparent.

According to Senge, and as I mentioned last month in an earlier post about Starbucks, supply chains support whole systems thinking because they focus on the “nature of the relationships”. In the HBR article, Senge maintains that in most supply chains, 90% of them are still transactional.   Manufacturer or retailers still pressure upstream suppliers to get their costs down and little incentive is given toward innovating together.  This in turn erodes trust, however, as I have mentioned in this space, changes are everywhere.  Some companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Walmart are also partnering with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and working in an open source manner with industry associations to innovate.   Successful ventures like Walmart/Environmental Defense Fund, Unilever/Oxfam and Coca-Cola/World Wildlife Fund are taking a collaborative approach to problem solving that drives innovation, breeds trust and industry “cred” and offer NGO’s a wider voice in addressing social, environmental performance issues in the supply chain.

But success in levering supply chains to impact environmental performance ultimate resides with corporate leaders.  Senge maintains to successfully engage thousands and thousands of people around the world from multiple organizations, you’ll need technical innovations, management innovations, process innovations, and cultural innovations.  And to effectively achieve these innovations take bold, often heretical leadership.  Organizations need to often take a step back from the details and “see the forest for the trees” (and hopefully not just see more trees!)

Research and practice in supply chain management is beginning to prove once and for all that supply chain as a “practice” offer unique learning opportunities related to triple bottom line based sustainability.  Learning experiences can range from relatively simple, incremental modifications to a current knowledge set – for example, new environmental regulations like REACH and RoHS – through to complex new approaches which will involve experimentation, small scale piloting and larger scale adaptation (such as those designed to help transporters manage their carbon emissions).

How does your company use “whole systems” thinking to manage supply chain issues? In coming weeks I will begin exploring supply chain learning and management through a sustainability lens, and share some findings from various manufacturing sectors.  It’s my hope that readers can then begin to understand how to apply whole systems approaches across enterprises in the supply chain.  It’s my grand plan that these ideas will gel into practical steps that add value and become a core operating principle in your company.