The LCA Sustainable Supply Chain Summit last week in Chicago packed loads of high quality content into a two-day event. More than thirty speakers from some of the largest companies in their respective industries spoke on topics ranging from the scientific perspective on LCA to ethical and social issues to more traditional supply chain considerations, such as transportation, packaging and waste. Among the speakers were sustainability directors and the like from Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, Motorola, Cadbury, GE, HP, Maersk, MillerCoors, and Sodexo, just to name a few.
A large part of the value of the conference was hearing about how sustainability programs were approached, what proved effective, and which efforts flopped. Despite being presented by mostly enormous, international corporations, many of the over-arching themes that were reiterated by multiple speakers will have value to companies of any size.
- Speak to your audience. When proposing sustainable supply chain initiatives, always frame the pitch in a way that will resonate with your audience first (e.g. cost reduction), and include the reduced impact as a nice side-effect. For example, when time is not of the essence, long-distance transport via ocean freight is often the most cost-effective option. As an added bonus, ocean freight also happens to be the least carbon-intensive method to move product — a win-win. (According to Maersk’s director of the environment, Lee Kindberg, a single 20-foot equivalent container unit is responsible for less than a ton of carbon on the trip from Hong Kong to LA. A truck would generate the same emissions in a mere 600-miles on the road.)
- You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Collect as much data as you can get on an ongoing basis. Understanding where you use energy, produce waste, consume water, etc., is imperative for developing effective strategies to reduce impact and save money. As an example, Sodexo’s CSR Specialist, Margaret Henry, described how daily waste audits in the company’s commercial kitchens lead to identifying where excess food is consistently prepared. Simply keeping track is a no-cost solution, and the company saves millions of dollars by not preparing food that will become waste.
- It’s not the number, it’s what you do with it. To counter-balance the last point, for data geeks like me, it can be all too easy to find yourself in a rabbit hole of data analysis. Several speakers wisely reiterated that while having access to good data is half the battle, more important is that you use that information to drive goals for improvement. For example, water conservation is a large part of the MillerCoors sustainability effort. (As its VP of Corporate Responsibility said, “We’re protecting our ability to make beer in the future. I don’t think anybody here is looking forward to the day when you get powdered beer.”) By performing water footprinting and copiously tracking the water consumed to produce a liter of beer, MillerCoors has become a water efficiency leader among US breweries, and has a goal to reduce consumption by 15% to achieve a 3.5:1 water-to-beer ratio by 2015.
- Sustainability drives innovation. Sustainability programs drive innovation that make companies more competitive in the marketplace. Motorola and Verizon Wireless partnered to create a new “eco friendly” set-top box. The result was a faster, smaller, lighter design that was 30% more efficient, RoHS-compliant, and packaged in 100% recyclable packaging — all of this while upgrading the processing and memory.
- Apples to apples. If any one company’s numbers are to be meaningful to consumers, there must be a way to compare across industries. Given the number of variables even within the same industry, this is a particularly hairy issue to tackle. Many companies are currently working with inter-industry groups to define standards for measurement and reporting.
Look for more coverage from the LCA Sustainable Supply Chain Summit throughout the next week.
Sheila Samuelson is a sustainable business strategist at Bright Green Strategy, and a graduate of the Presidio Graudate School’s MBA in Sustainable Management.