The ASU and University of Arkansas organization works with companies to define, develop, deliver more sustainable products
Most people have heard of blood diamonds. They’re mined in war zones, often by children, and sold to finance insurgencies, terrorism or warlord activities.
In the early 2000s, diamond-producing African countries led an effort to create a system that tracks diamonds from the mine to the market and regulates the policing surrounding the export, manufacture and sale of the gems. Now, at your local jeweler, you can be 95 percent sure the diamond you select did not finance any evils.
But … what about every other product in your life?
How about T-shirts? Deodorant? Greeting cards? Consumer goods contribute to 60 percent of greenhouse emissions, 75 percent of forced and child labor, 80 percent of water withdrawal and 60 percent of tropical deforestation on the planet.
Nearly a decade ago, Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas recognized an opportunity for an organization to come along with a mission to make all consumer products more sustainable.
Consumers demand accountability
They created The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) in 2009 to transform the consumer-goods industry. By partnering with leading companies, NGOs, universities and government organizations, the consortium works to help companies define, develop and deliver more sustainable products.
The organization, which now has more than 100 members, created a science-based system, where research insights into almost 130 product categories are offered to companies. It’s a way retailers can work with competitors in a non-competitive way.
Companies that manufacture and sell consumer products are starting to pay more attention, because shoppers who do care tend to be vocal and visible about environmental sustainability. They’re demanding more transparency and stewardship from retailers.
The work is paying off. Retailers using the consortium’s tools include Walmart, Amazon, Sam’s Club, Marks & Spencer and Walgreens. Other pilots with retailers are happening in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
“By sharing sustainability measurement tools with large, well-known brands at the hub of the $14 trillion global economy, we’re on an exciting track to influence social and environmental stewardship involving $1 trillion of consumer sales,” said chief scientist Kevin J. Dooley, ASU Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management.
Providing the right tools
For the past five years, TSC’s team has developed a toolkit library with research insights for nearly 130 product categories, from adhesive tapes to toys, root vegetables to refrigerators, wine to wild-caught shellfish.
Each industry has specific issues that the consortium works to address. For example, fishing companies may experience “hot spots” related to animal welfare and biodiversity, while corn-oil production impacts smallholder farmers, forced labor, land and climate.
“TSC proves that universities are good places for the world to bring difficult and controversial issues to,” Dooley said. “We’re automatically looked at as technical problem solvers… but the university can also be looked at as a safe and objective place for deliberation and discourse, even for groups that are very far apart from each other.”
Now, about $200 billion worth of consumer products are managed using the consortium’s tools. TSC’s 2017 impact report showed that more than 40 percent of suppliers in the Walmart Sustainability Index took action in their own operations and supply chains to improve their scores.
“We are now seeing the tide changing in the number of companies committing to creating sustainable products for a more sustainable planet,” said Euan Murray, TSC chief executive. “The scientific rigor and academic resources that ASU and the University of Arkansas have provided us from day one have been essential in our progress and have supported us every step of the way.”
The numbers bear up the organization’s impact.
- In 2016, more than 2,000 suppliers used category sustainability surveys to report their progress to their retail buyers, a 25 percent increase from the year before.
- Those suppliers represent more than $200 billion in sales to their retail partners.
- In 2017, these suppliers were surveyed on their experience about responding to TSC surveys. More than 250 suppliers responded, and 40 percent of them replied positively that they had done something tangible to improve their scores by creating internal data collection and communication systems, engaging suppliers, changing products or processes, or beginning to communicate publicly about their sustainability efforts.
- To date, 85 percent of consumer goods are covered.
- The Consortium has received about 3,000 science-based citations.
- More than 600 suppliers have been trained.
- More than 200 global organizations have been convened for over an average of 75 networking opportunities annually.
It’s not just suppliers and retailers whose behavior changes are targeted. The Consortium and the American Cleaning Institute have developed a campaign for millennials to teach them the benefits of using cold water in laundry. That campaign will be rolled out at ASU this month.