“We don’t have to wait to act until [the sustainability scorecard] is perfect; otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about this for another 20 years.” —Brittni Furrow, Walmart Stores, Inc.
“Bringing science to the table can help pull new levers by creating a common, credible language.” —Christy Melhart Slay, The Sustainability Consortium
“Account managers are now addressing how the supplier sustainability portfolios are managed, allowing us to have more active conversations and establishing understanding with suppliers.” —Michael Murphy, Dell
Olson kicked off the discussion with a set of themes digging into identifying and delivering the challenges and opportunities of more sustainable products—particularly, how do we define a more sustainable product, and what tools and support do players need to be successful?
The panel represented stops along the global value chain, including buyers, a multi-stakeholder initiative, manufacturers, sustainability departments, and consumer-facing businesses. Buyers like Walmart are interested in using transparency to protect both ends of the supply chain, from raw material providers to customers. The multi-stakeholder Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is dedicated to the “science of sustainability,” and pulling the science lever to motivate change. Dell uses its manufacturer and retailer perspective to cite the need to combine both proprietary and multi-stakeholder work based on science to drive progress. Within merchandising, Furrow highlighted the importance of embedding scientific sustainability into supply chain and merchandising engagement to drive improvements. Smith said AT&T leverages its retail relationships with suppliers and investment in environmental metrics to create an eco-label for consumers that is consistent with the industry and existing requirements, while creating a path for further improvements.
Olson asked how these different portions of the value chain can help business-focused as well as end-user-focused buyers make sense of sustainability and use it in their work. Furrow laid out Walmart’s co-creation of embedding sustainability into merchandising with the merchandising department from the beginning, and then setting sustainability goals for employee performance, compensation, and other areas to motivate ownership and momentum. Complementing this with hands-on training, actionable tools, and embedding sustainability work into the orientation and mindset of all levels of the organization has allowed Walmart to drive deeper engagement and uptake internally.
Given Dell’s multiple roles within the value chain, Murphy outlined a multi-pronged approach to guiding standardization, while connecting eco-labels and rating systems to Dell’s existing work and strategy for alignment. He cautioned that competition can impede progress, and this reduced level of transparency can make multi-stakeholder initiatives and individual company undertakings slower and more difficult.
Focusing on these companies’ efforts at various levels of the value chain can provide lessons learned to move the sustainability agenda forward faster, collaboratively. Slay framed her experience at TSC as living in “mosquito years”—they’ve undergone an immeasurable amount of learning during the organization’s short existence. She cited transparency and getting all actors at the table to move forward as challenges to understanding what issues exist and how to approach them. Yet the tremendous amount of knowledge-sharing between TSC and companies has allowed all parties to gain fuller perspectives and move faster on the key issues.
During the question-and-answer session, Furrow responded to a question about Walmart’s current sustainability expectations for suppliers—the initial 2009 scorecard rollout caused supplier panic—by highlighting the company’s internal focus and partnership with TSC to use science as a metric to develop the next generation of supplier sustainability expectations. She recognized that the old scorecard was not specific enough to be actionable, whereas their new efforts will be able to drive measurable improvements.
The working session’s breakout focus groups then shared a number of insights, including: