Tag Archives: sustainable sourcing

Nothing Says “Green Supply Chain’ Like Innovative, Sustainable Packaging

8 Jul

Courtesy Tiny Banquet Committee under CC License

The pea pod is possibly the greatest sustainable packaging design nature can provide.  It packs a lot in a small space, efficiently uses the minimum amount of resources…and best of all its compostable…well sort of unless I eat it!

And like the simple pea pod, few sustainability attributes in a supply chain come together across the value chain than packaging.  Packaging and repackaging is ubiquitous along every step of the chain, from product design, prototyping, procurement production, distribution, consumer end use and post consumer end-of-life management.  And the more parts that are in use in making of a product, and steps along the way to deliver the parts, the greater the packaging (and hence environmental footprint) involved along that chain.  And for every packaged part that comes from someplace else to make a product, a similar carbon, energy and resource use can be measured.

That’s why sustainable practices in packaging are so important in driving supply chain efficiency…and why innovation in the ‘green’ packaging sector has been “white hot” the past several years. A study by Accenture found that retailers can realize a 3 percent to 5 percent supply chain cost savings via green packaging initiatives. So if you extrapolate that type of savings out across multiple tiers of supply chain activity, where packaging is the common denominator, the efficiencies and savings can rack up quickly.

A new report from research organization Visiongain finds that because of a variety of drivers such as carbon emissions, extended producer responsibility and waste reduction targets plus advanced packaging technologies, the sustainable and green packaging market’s worth is expected to reach $107.7 billion in 2011. Their report shows varying degrees of growth from developed to developing nations; however what’s striking is that the growth trend is weathering the slumping global economy and higher production costs.

Sustainable Packaging 101

Sustainable packaging solutions deliver around two colors according to the Accenture report: black (deliver reduced costs) and green (reduce environmental impacts). Sustainable packaging relies on best engineering, energy management, materials science and life cycle thinking to minimize the environmental impact of a product through its lifecycle.  Given the past decade or so of science and engineering work around sustainable packaging, there are some discovered and tested attributes, such as:

  1. Reducing packaging and maximizing the use of renewable or reusable materials
  2. Using lighter weight, less toxic or other materials which reduce negative end-of-life impacts
  3. Demonstrating compliance with regulations regarding hazardous chemicals and packaging and waste legislation ( such as the European Directive 94/62/EC  on Packaging and Packaging Waste)
  4. Optimizing material usage including product-to-package ratios
  5. Using materials which are from certified, responsibly managed forests
  6. Meeting criteria for performance and cost (e.g., minimize product damage during transit)
  7. Reducing the flow of solid waste to landfill
  8. Reducing the costs associated with packaging (i.e., logistics, storage, disposal, etc.)
  9. Reducing CO2 emissions through reduced shipping loads

Best in Class Examples

I have seen companies stress the importance of the 6 R’s of sustainable packaging (refill, reduce, recycle, repurpose, renew, reuse;  Walmarts 7 R’s of Sustainable Packaging (Remove Packaging, Reduce Packaging, Reuse Packaging , Renew(able), Recycle(able), Revenue (economic benefits), and  Read (education);  and even the 10 R’s eco-strategy (Replenish, Reduce, Re-explore, Replace, Reconsider, Review, Recall, Redeem, Register and Reinforce).

Associations are stepping up to the plate as well as manufacturers in a variety of consumer product markets.  In March of this year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced the results of survey research by McKinsey that indicated elimination of more than 1.5 billion pounds (800 million pounds of plastic and more than 500 million pounds of paper) since 2005, and another 2.5 billion pounds are expected to be avoided by 2020.  Over 180 packaging initiatives were identified and evaluated.  The GMA estimated that the reduction would be equal to a 19 percent reduction of reporting companies’ total average U.S. packaging weight.

In the fast moving consumer goods category Coca Cola’s packaging efficiency efforts just in 2009 avoided the use of approximately 85,000 metric tons of primary packaging, resulting in an estimated cost savings of more than $100 million.  The company rolled out of short-height bottle closures, reducing material use, implemented traditional packaging material light weighting; and used more recycled materials in packaging production.  At the end consumer point, the company has also supported the direct recovery of 36% of the bottles and cans placed into the market by the Coca-Cola system and continues to work with distributors on increasing recovery efforts.

In the electronics space, Dell Computer committed in 2008 to reduce cost by $8 million and quantity by 20 million pounds of packaging by 2012 centered around three themes (cube, content, curb):

  • Shrinking packaging volume by 10 percent (cube)
  • Increasing to 40 percent, the amount of recycled content in packaging (content)
  • Increasing to 75 percent, the amount of material in packaging to be curbside recyclable (curb).

As an example, Dell wanted to find a greener, more cost efficient way to package its computers by eliminating foams, corrugated and molded paper pulp.  The solution was sustainably sourced bamboo packaging certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.  So far, Dells efforts have resulted in eliminating over 8.7 million pounds of packaging, and they have nearly met their recycled content goal.

Perhaps most significantly, WalMart took a huge step in 2007 to seek supplier conformance around packaging.  Since then, despite the initial uproar, there has been an uptick in design and innovative product activity by thousands of key suppliers in response to the mega-retailers challenge.  By reducing packaging in the Wal-Mart supply chain by just five (5) percent by 2013, that would 1) prevent 660,000 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, keeping 200,000 trucks off the road every year (that’s a green attribute) and save the company more than $3.4 billion (a black attribute).  Walmarts bottom line was to put more products on its shelves in the same space, and also recognized the sustainability attributes that change would make.  They also knew that most consumers (me included) just despise excess packaging.  Here are two examples of Walmart supplier efforts from a small and large supplier:

Alpha Packaging: the company has a new bottle design for Gumout Fuel Injection Cleaner.  The company concentrated the product and switched from PVC bottles (which are not recyclable) to much smaller bottles made from PET (which is recyclable and has 30% post-consumer recycled content).  This led to 1) reduced product weight by up to 51% and 2) capability to transport a truck filled with new 6 oz products (formerly 12 oz) equating to 153,600 bottles as opposed to 61,000 originally.

General Mills: the company took a novel approach and they looked at the product first.  They straightened its Hamburger Helper noodles, meaning the product could lie flatter in the box. This, in turn, allowed General Mills to reduce the size of those boxes.   According to the company, that effort saved nearly 900,000 pounds of paper fiber annually.  The company effort also managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent, took 500 trucks off the road and increased the amount of product Wal-Mart shelves by 20 percent.

Win-Win-Win.  For the environment, for manufacturers and suppliers, and for consumers.

Full Circle Collaboration is Vital to Drive Sustainable Packaging

What makes sustainable packaging compelling is that it’s one of the key elements of a product that consumers can see, touch and feel.  Over packaging or improper packaging can produce high reaction levels, right? (remember last year’s noisy Sun Chips compostable bag dust up?)  But in an interesting post last year in Packaging Digest by Katherine O’Dea of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, she mentioned the critical importance of collaboration between brand owners and retailers. What was a scary statistic is that “brand owners and retailers may have direct control over as little as 5 percent of the environmental impacts of packaging and only indirect control over the other 95 percent.”  On the other hand another study conducted by the market research firm Datamonitor showed of U.S. consumers surveyed, 49% felt that packaging design has a medium or high level of influence over their choice of food and drink products.

Just as there are challenges to drive consumer acceptance of more sustainable types of package designs (especially aesthetics), there are equally challenging design factors (such as package strength, permeability, and other physical factors that may compromise product integrity during shipment.

Opportunities to Leverage the Supply Chain from Design to Post Consumer Package management

High performing manufacturing companies are clearly using sustainable packaging design and manufacturing as a way to lever efficiencies through the product value chain.  Companies are finding that using less complex packaging helps cut sourcing, energy production and distribution and fuel costs across the supply chain.  The glory days of corrugated packaging as the one stop solution are being replaced with reusable packaging options.  Also, reducing the consumption of raw materials, carbon emissions and waste generation reduces manufacturing costs.

Since disposal by consumers is one of the largest waste streams in the supply chain, using less packaging of direct-to-consumer shipments also offers great opportunities for supply chain optimization.  The previously mentioned Accenture report recommends that through route planning and sourcing software, “collaboration across the companies in the supply chain is necessary to maximize freight utilization. In particular, retailers need to proactively encourage vendors to provide pallet or “trailer feet” specifications for collecting shipments… retailer’s planners can determine the optimum transportation mode and look for multi-stop opportunities.”

Optimized Supply Chain (Accenture)

As shown in the accompanying diagram, Accenture suggests there are opportunities to reduce the packaging/un-packaging cycle by addressing the product life-cycle and optimized material use.   Through ongoing recycling and the use of alternative materials throughout the product value chain, opportunities are created to reduce the volume of packaging waste. Also, take back programs create a two-way transportation flow, with reusable packaging materials being sent back up the supply chain rather than to a landfill.

Remember too that there are several key association and initiatives that can be tapped into, including:

  1. Sustainable Packaging Coalition: http://www.sustainablepackaging.org/default.aspx
  2. Greener Package: http://www.greenerpackage.com/
  3. Sustainable Packaging Alliance: http://www.sustainablepack.org/default.aspx
  4. Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative http://www.sustainablebiomaterials.org
  5. Reusable Packaging Association: http://reusables.org/

Some final pointers to consider when designing packaging and using the supply chain to drive sustainability:

  • Source alternative sustainable packaging materials- the innovative options are plentiful.
  • Evaluate product life-cycle impacts as a way to discover design options that could lead to less packaging.
  • Anticipate the total energy and resource use over an entire products package life
  • Evaluate materials disposal and post consumer end-of-product life opportunities
  • Design products for efficient transport
  • Schedule and optimize transportation networks
  • Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate!
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Keeping it Simple: Seven Action Steps for Manufacturers and Suppliers to Climb Up the Sustainability Ladder

29 Jun

The authors new three-string Cigar Box Guitar (made with mostly recycled parts)

This past weekend I went and finally did it.  I closed the loop on my dream to play gritty, stripped down delta blues on a cigar box guitar (CBG) in tandem with my harmonica.  At first I went to the local Recycled Arts Fair thinking I’d buy a four string CBG.  But within a few minutes of speaking with local Vancouver, WA luthier Alan Matta  at Hammered Frets (www.hammeredfrets.com), he’d convinced me to start with a 3 string and then think about a 4 (or more) string later.  Why?  Well, it’s simple.  I don’t know how to play the darn thing!  Fewer strings also means easier chords (with many requiring just one or two fingers), and more harmonic simplicity to help a newer player (like me) keep from getting overwhelmed. Plus, fewer strings means less tension on the neck and risk of bowing.   (Sidebar: I do have a musical pedigree, having played brass instruments and harmonica since I was 12), and I get music theory, but playing stringed instruments…can an old dog learn a new trick?)

If you are a small to mid-sized manufacturer for instance, getting started with a company sustainability initiative, or in greening a supply chain is a lot like learning a musical instrument.  Quite often if companies try to bite off more than they can chew (three vs. four string chords), there’s too much stress (like a guitar neck) and greater risk of failure (bowing of the neck).  Simplicity often trumps complexity when getting started down the sustainability path.  This is particularly true if companies are starting from scratch, or lack deep financial or personnel resources.  So before companies start to feel overwhelmed, there are ways to “ease” into sustainability, without the stress.

Last year I wrote about how the “look” and “feel” of sustainability depends on the level of enlightenment that a company has, the desired “end state” and on the depth of its resources to execute the change.  Also, I spoke about the importance of adequate resources to make the leap and a systematic process to keep on track.  I advocated systematic planning before moving  ahead.  This involved:

  • Building a system to plan, implement, measure and check progress of the initiative.
  • Looking for the quick wins.
  • Building an innovation-based culture and reward positive outcomes.
  • Measuring, managing, reporting and building on the early wins.
  • Building the initiative in manageable chunks.

A Systems Framework to Get the Ball Rolling

Let’s accept for a moment that if you are reading this, you already understand that sustainability as a term means many things to many organizations.  An effective sustainability roadmap and the systematic framework to manage sustainability must consider four key focal areas: compliance, operations, product sustainability and supply chain sustainability.  Bearing in mind that “one size doesn’t fit all”  there still needs to be a systematic way to get to the “desired goal”.  A systematic framework like an ISO 14001-based Environmental Management System (EMS), offers a set of processes and tools for effective accomplishment of sustainability objectives.  But in the event that a company isn’t quite ready to make the leap into the ISO world, there are alternatives.

A Cycle of Continual Improvement

“Plan- Do-Check-Act” Creates Shared, Sustainable Value

One such alternative comes from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  The OECD has produced a “ Sustainable Manufacturing Toolkit”, that as they say “provides a practical starting point for businesses around the world to improve the efficiency of their production processes and products in a way to contribute to sustainable development and green growth.” The OECD addresses the four key sustainability focal points that I mentioned previously.  As an aside, a collaborator with SEEDS Global Alliance (Sustainable Manufacturing Consulting) had a hand in contributing to this valuable project by providing detailed feedback on the toolkit.

According to the newly launched site, it offers two parts: a step-by-step Start-up Guide and a Web Portal where technical guidance on measurement and relevant links are provided.  I tested out the site, and while parts appear to still be under construction, the information there is pretty intuitive and gives the novice some basic information that they can use to get started.  For manufacturers in particular, the guidance offers 7 action steps to sustainable manufacturing:

Prepare [Plan]

1. Map your impact and set priorities: Bring together an internal “sustainability team” to set objectives, review your environmental impact and decide on priorities.

2. Select useful performance indicators: Identify indicators that are important for your business and what data should be collected to help drive continuous improvement.

Measure [Do]

3. Measure the inputs used in production: Identify how materials and components used into your production processes influence environmental performance.

4. Assess operations of your facility: Consider the impact and efficiency of the operations in your facility (e.g. energy intensity, greenhouse gas generation, emissions/discharges to air and water [ and land]).

5. Evaluate your products: Identify factors such as energy consumption in use, recyclability and use of hazardous substances that help determine how sustainable your end product is. (I’d also add water consumption and wastewater outputs).  It’s here that the upstream supply chain becomes a very important consideration.

Improve [Check/Act]

6.Understand measured results: Read and interpret your indicators and understand trends in your performance.

7. Take action to improve performance: Choose opportunities to improve your performance and create action plans to implement them.

What more can a small to mid-sized manufacturing company ask for if they are seeking basic actionable steps for starting up the sustainability ladder.  Remember folks, it’s better to start in small, incremental steps, with a scalable internal (risk and process driven) and external (supply network enabling) plan that provides “sustainable value”.

Implementing a sustainability program is best done in stages, like learning that cigar box guitar.  No organization has the resources (or appetite) to tackle the “whole enchilada” at once.  That’s why I’m keeping it simple and sticking with the three-string…for now.

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.

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)

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

1 Mar

Many of my prior posts have highlighted the critical needs for increased supply chain collaboration among the world’s largest manufacturers. This is especially evident for large worldwide manufacturers operating subcontractor arrangements in developing nations and “tiger economies”, such as India, Mexico and China (and the rest of Southeast Asia). I have stressed how the most successful greening efforts in supply chains are based on value creation through the sharing of intelligence and know-how about environmental and emerging regulatory issues and emerging technologies.  I’ve further stressed how suppliers and customers can collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance, share cost of ownership and social license to operate and create “reciprocal value”.  But supply chain sustainability and corporate governance must be driven by the originating manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors for their products.

Recent events concerning Apple Computers alleged lax supplier oversight and reported supplier human rights and environmental violations only shows a microcosm of the depth of the challenges that suppliers face in managing or influencing these issues on the ground.  Apple recently did the right thing by transparently releasing its Apple Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report, which underscored just how challenging and difficult multi-tiered supply chain management can be.

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

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

To meet that deficiency, a key element of GE’s supply chain management program relies on intensive supplier auditing and oversight.  GE’s comprehensive supplier assessment program evaluates suppliers in China and other developing economies for environment, health and safety, labor, security and human rights issues. GE has leaned on its thousands of suppliers to obtain the appropriate environmental and labor permits, improve their environmental compliance and overall performance. GE performs due diligence on-site inspections of many suppliers as a condition of order fulfillment and as part of its tender process.

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

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

Education First!

EHS Academy, courtesy GE

In addition, GE and other multi-national companies (including Wal-Mart, Honeywell, Citibank and SABIC Innovative Plastics) have partnered to create the EHS Academy in Guangdong province.  The objective of this no-profit venture is to create a more well-trained and capable workforce of environmental, health and safety professionals, and give them the management, implementation and technical knowledge to be able to proactively assure ensure “that real performance is sustainable and integrated fully into the overall business strategy and operating system” of a company.  Chinese regulatory agencies are also invited to participate as well. The model that GE is using in China offers a positive example of collaborative innovation.

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

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

Surveys Lift the Lid on Innovation & Sustainable Supply Chain Management, Uncovering Value & Leadership Traits

9 Feb

This is a tale of two surveys…one innovation focused, the other supply chain focused.  What both have in common is how the reports focused on define the traits and qualities of those who lead and those who follow in their respective business spaces.  Those who innovate tend to lead while those who follow…well, often play catch up.  That’s not too efficient and can lead to wasteful use of resources.  Trust me-as I learned last fall (see photo), it’s better to be the lead horse rider in a dusty trail ride.

The Leaders vs. Laggards Survey

In 2010, as part of its Innovation Survey Series, Cap Gemini Consulting performed a “Leader versus Laggard” study.  The goal of the study was understand the “current state of affairs regarding innovation, and … to identify what drives the success of companies that view themselves as successful”.  Over 375 companies responded to the survey.  Those reporting ‘over 75%’ of innovation efforts having a positive material impact on the company’s business results were considered “leaders” (slightly more than 11%). The ‘less than 25%’ category represents the innovation “laggard” group (nearly 25% of the respondents).  The remaining 65% percent were somewhere in the middle, innovation-wise. The primary drivers of innovation were: evolving customer needs, technological advances and changes, executive direction/internal demands, macroeconomic/external factors, globalization, and changing supplier capabilities. Innovation efforts were generally wrapped into the following five categories: customer focused innovation, new product development, incremental product improvement, business process innovation, and, business model innovation.

Innovation was considered a top-three strategic priority by more than 76 percent of the respondents to the Capgemini survey. Further, over half of the respondents indicated they have developed relationships with third parties to support their innovation efforts on an ongoing basis. The key study takeaways were:

  1. Innovation leaders have advanced beyond other innovators by having an accountable innovation executive or other form of formal innovation governance structure that deals with this kind of decision-making.
  2. Laggard companies hadn’t mastered collaborating effectively with external partners to improve their innovation results. Leaders however had been able to successfully leverage suppliers, customers and other third parties in the innovation process, including filling in missing capabilities or resources – such as technology and talent.
  3. Business model innovation will be the next big differentiator for companies aspiring to innovation leadership. Innovation leaders are allocating increasingly more resources to business model innovation.

Why is this study valuable in terms of supply chain sustainability?  Read on.

The Sustainable Supply Chain Survey

A revealing and promising study was released by the Aberdeen Research Group a couple of months ago.  The Sustainable Supply Chain surveyed 360 companies and found that sustainable supply chain management and supply chain risk management are among the top three areas for improvement in their organization for one third of the respondents.  While that isn’t a stellar number there are some positive trends.  For instance, the survey showed that 76% of the overall survey respondents have incorporated sustainability criteria into some or all of their supply chain management processes. The results provide further proof that in 2010 more companies viewed sustainable supply chain and greening as a foundational aspect of their business operations.

This survey fared compared well with another survey conducted by eyefortransport (EFT) that I reported on in a prior post).  In the EFT survey, well over 60 percent of those companies surveyed had implemented or were initiating sustainability focused efforts in 2010- ranking around 10th out of nearly 40 supply chain management project categories.   In the logistics survey, most respondents noted a far higher level of positive environmental performance in 2010 compared with 2009.

The Aberdeen survey found that two primary drivers for sustainability revolved around achieving “competitive advantage” and assurance that companies were compliant “with current and future regulations”.   Additional drivers noted by about a third of the respondents included interest in positive impacts to bottom line financials and responding to consumer demands for ‘eco friendly’ products.  These drivers, according to the reports highlighted perspectives of five different stakeholders along the end-to-end supply network: customers, suppliers, regulators, competitors and shareholders.

What makes the Aberdeen survey unique was how it distinguished business pattern between “leaders” and “laggards” (like the Capgemini report).  Two key take-aways were:

1) Best-in-Class companies were twice as likely to incorporate sustainability principles throughout all supply chain management (SCM) processes and

2) a principal characteristic of “laggards” was their lack of focus on incorporating sustainability into their SCM processes.

For example, the Aberdeen study identified a 29% spread between leaders who’ve achieved 12% emission reductions versus laggards corresponding 17% increase in emissions.  Similar polar opposite movement was found in areas related to energy consumption and operating margin containment.  And like the Capgemini study, best in class (leaders) companies were 70% more likely to establish corporate governance teams, making technology investment to collect and report metrics, and engaging their suppliers.  Think of the potential savings that leaders have realized compared to their laggard counterparts.

Logistics Providers Leading the Way

As one example, two logistics giants, FedEx and UPS have done deep dives in their business practices and implemented industry leading solutions to bake supply chain sustainability into their operations and supplier networks. UPS has deployed “package-flow” software to map out its most efficient delivery routes. Besides limiting left-hand turns, UPS estimates it shaved nearly 30 million miles off its delivery routes, saved 3 million gallons of gas and reduced CO2 emissions by 32,000 metric tons.  FedEx has deployed cleaner vehicles, sourced alternative power sources for its facilities and engaged its supply chain to promote recycling, product reuse and greener packaging to support FedEx’s operations. The company reports that they’ve improved total fleet miles per gallon within the U.S. by 14.1 percent since 2005, saving over 53 million gallons of fuel or approximately 472,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, with a goal of improving by 20 percent by 2020.  And like UPS, FedEx  is (according to its web site) redesigning its “physical distribution models to maximize the density of … ground and air shipments. This reduces the amount of fuel it takes to ship each package….”

The Aberdeen study also mentioned how the UK based non-profit Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex) has developed a secure online platform for companies to share and monitor sustainability data across supply chain.  Sedex’s mission is “connecting businesses and their global suppliers to share ethical data and enabling continuous improvement in ethical performance”.  Currently used in over 160 countries, the membership driven initiative focuses on metrics capture across four “key pillars”: Labor standards, health and safety, business integrity and environment.  Being on Sedex does not mean that a company has met any ethical standards or is in compliance with any code but it does mean that suppliers have made a commitment to continuous improvement.  Suppliers to major retailers and brand owners continue to own the data and manage its use, and keep it updated on a semiannual basis.  Suppliers’ customers then have the option to run a “risk profile” which can allow them in turn to prioritize suppliers for additional collaboration to manage the sustainability footprint of their products or practices.

The Work’s Not Done

The Aberdeen study did uncover several challenges that companies face, especially those with wide supply chain networks.   The study found that about 40% of companies outsourcing at least some of their manufacturing struggle to establish operational capabilities that yield measurable results (less than 10% efficiency).  This underscores the difficulties that many manufacturers have in effectively controlling or influencing supply chain behavior.  And while sustainability initiatives focused on improved energy use efficiency and practices to reduce environmental footprints are highly relevant in improving operations efficiencies, execution still remains challenging.

“The focus on sustainability has changed from being a philanthropic, ‘nice to have’ initiative, to the one that is core to the success of organization…Consistently adhering to the sustainability mandates established by clients as well as establishing mandates for your suppliers is an important strategy to gain incremental business value in the current environment” – Nari Viswanathan, Vice President and Principal Analyst of Supply Chain Management at Aberdeen.

Pushing the Supply Chain Envelop Requires Innovation and Leadership

Many of my prior posts have suggested that “supply chain successes are driven by those who lead through innovation and don’t procrastinate.  These organizations have vision– for the short term and long-term”.  The Aberdeen and Capgemini surveys are proof that ‘first mover’ companies are changing the way business gets done, sometimes in marked, ‘greener’ ways.

I believe that innovative companies are those who consider business operations through a “sustainability lens” by 1) developing key performance goals and metrics to make supply chain sustainability initiatives thoughtful, effective and believable; 2) implementing sustainability initiatives that create environmental and social benefit and that are aligned with the company’s financial strategies and business vision; and 3) identifying and developing value-added transparency and proactive collaboration throughout the supply chain.

Who is up to pushing the supply chain envelope, be a sustainability leader and reap the benefits?

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

3 Feb

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

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

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

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

Apples Supplier Commitment

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

Nikes Redemption Story- a Work in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaging and Leveraging the Supply Chain

The most successful greening efforts in supply chains are based on value creation through the sharing of intelligence and know-how about environmental and emerging regulatory issues and emerging technologies.  Leading edge, sustainability –minded and innovative companies have found “reciprocal value” through enhanced product differentiation, reputation management and customer loyalty.  Suppliers and customers must collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance and share cost of ownership and social license to operate.  But supply chain sustainability and corporate governance must be driven by the originating manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors for their products.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, “I’m a PC”.