How the Sustainability Consortium Creates 'Hot Spots' for Innovation

By Will Pekel, Intern, Corporate Partnerships Program

What if there was one source for comprehensive and credible information about the environmental and social sustainability of everyday products? Could such a resource accelerate the environmental and social change we need across the retail industry, from suppliers to retailers to consumers?

In 2009, Walmart provided the initial funding for The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) to help answer these questions and make such a resource a reality. The goal of TSC is to develop and promote science and integrated tools that can improve informed decision making for sustainability throughout the entire lifecycle of everyday products. GreenBiz.com's recent interview with Bonnie Nixon, TSC's executive director provides a great overview of the consortium's efforts.

But creating a comprehensive system to evaluate the sustainability of products in a rigorous, credible and transparent way across thousands of different product categories, each with tens or hundreds of products will be no small feat.

Take for example, a relatively simple product like sour cream. Walmart and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) examined the environmental impact of its private brand sour cream, and discovered many "hot spots" throughout its life cycle. For instance, the methane gas from cows, emissions and fuel usage from transportation and distribution, and energy and water usage from pasteurization and homogenization processes, just to name a few. Now imagine doing this assessment for the thousands of products on every shelf across Walmart's more than 9,000 stores globally, and you begin to get a sense of the challenge at hand.

But with all of the resources at TSC's disposal, this organization has the potential to tackle these environmental and social challenges head-on and truly transform the retail industry. TSC already has over 75 corporate members, including retailers Ahold, Kroger, Marks & Spencer, Safeway and Walmart, and embodies an economic network that stretches around the world.

For EDF, TSC represents an unprecedented opportunity to develop the product and process insight required to create truly sustainable consumer goods. To that end, EDF has partnered with Innovations for Scaling Impact (iScale), a group with expertise in strengthening global multi-stakeholder efforts, to develop a strategy for how NGOs can help scale environmental change and maximize the impact of organizations such as TSC.

A recent meeting organized by EDF and iScale brought together key NGOs in Washington, D.C., to discuss how they can help TSC transform the consumer goods industry. Together, we discussed the challenges and the opportunities of TSC. EDF and iScale then created a set of recommendations that are being released to the public for the first time today [PDF].

It's likely that TSC will fail to achieve its lofty ambitions without having NGOs deeply and broadly involved in its efforts. The report makes the case for: NGO involvement in TSC leadership and decision-making; A transparent and inclusive process that focuses on scientific rigor; Broad participation by social and environmental groups from across the globe; Exploring financial support for NGO engagement; Use of tools beyond life cycle assessment (LCA) to ensure all environmental impacts are realistically represented; and Most importantly, moving TSC from measurement to action to drive real environmental change.

TSC is beginning to show signs of progress, recently completing 50 initial product category dossiers for goods ranging from beef to video game consoles. These comprehensive resources assess each product category's environmental and social impact, and will be peer reviewed and eventually turned into profiles that can be used by TSC member companies such as P&G, Dell and Coca-Cola to transform their value chains. TSC is also showing signs that it realizes the value of involving NGOs in its work, having recently appointed two NGO representatives to its board of directors from WWF and CARE.

Fundamentally changing the products we use every day will not happen suddenly or easily. It will require extraordinary effort and collaboration from all stakeholders. But, with this powerful collection of global retailers and consumer product goods companies, along with expert academics and scientifically grounded NGOS, we might just have a chance to succeed.

This content is cross-posted on Greenbiz.com.