Creating a scientific foundation for the environmental measurement and reporting of consumer goods.
Dr. Jon (Jonathan) Johnson
Academic Director and Co-Founder
The Sustainability Consortium
Executive Director, Applied Sustainability Center
Walton College Professor of Sustainability
University of Arkansas
[Walmart] provided the seed funding for the consortium, which was created by the University of Arkansas, and Arizona State University….[The University of Arkansas knows much about Walmart, and ASU has a great sustainability program].
Any company that is interested in promoting the sustainability agenda can join... We have retailers, manufacturers... We also have NGO members, more academic members, and even governmental members.
I am a professor of business strategy, organizational theory and ethics, and… have published for a long time, have always had an interest in the environment, and corporate social responsibility. I had a good strong relationship with [Walmart’s] strategy Vice President, who became their sustainability and strategy Vice President.
The company made a convincing argument that they were interested in sustainability... How often do you get a chance to work with the world’s largest company on something you’re passionate about?
TSC Achievements and Challenges:
We set out to create a system for measuring and reporting sustainability impact for consumer goods, and we’ve got a really good start on that… The system we have built is multi-stakeholder, grounded in science, vetted against the best scientific information out there, translated into language businesses can understand, and further translated into performance indicators (KPIs) – metrics of how your suppliers are performing.
The knowledge products we’ve created can be used as tools for helping buyers and suppliers understand what the biggest impacts are, and some of the best improvement opportunities, for the product categories we’re developing.
We’ve developed knowledge products for 100 product categories so far. [In choosing product categories] we’re looking for high impact (some substantial environmental and social impact), high volume so there is opportunity to actually move the needle, and relevance to our members.
Challenges? Every dad gum thing. The things that make the consortium unique also creates complexity and challenge. We are multi-variable -- We do things like carbon emissions, and water quality, and biodiversity, and social, and we’re multi-sector… and we’re international, as we are rolling into China here pretty soon.
Apples to apples comparisons of, for example, carbon emissions across electronics and textiles and food is a challenge… And each of those industries have their own initiatives going on trying to evaluate those issues as well… So there are methodological and social/political challenges to overcome as well. We are always collaborative, so the degree to which we can work with other systems we will do it.
TSC Data Sources:
The information on the products themselves comes from published literature, interviews, systematic surveys. [Our work is] multi-stakeholder, very systematic. What’s gets recorded against the KPIs is provided by the companies that respond… Eventually we will try to get that anonymized.
PE International (which owns the GaBi database) and EcoInvent [both providers of product lifecycle databases] are both members of the consortium…. We do lifecycle models for market-typical products.… That said, we are not explicitly relying on GaBi or EcoInvent outside of the general models.
Words of Wisdom...
In the face of uncertainty, try something -- acknowledging that mistakes will be made... It’s going to be a learning process, and be very open to an honest evaluation.
Learn more about the texture of TSC in
Joel Makower's interview with its
new Executive Director.