How can consumers determine the real sustainability successes of their favorite brands? That's the perennial question for many Western shoppers these days, who often want to know whether the items and the brands they support are really as environmentally and socially benign as companies say.
A variety of industry-specific scoring systems have emerged in recent years to aid in that effort. Greenpeace's recent evaluation of electronics manufacturers, the Sustainability Consortium's many reports on specific industries and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index all provide a means for evaluating companies and supply chains within their respective markets.
Now in its fourth year, the Corporate Information Transparency Index (CITI) has amassed a list of 267 brands and 3,292 suppliers. Its list, developed jointly by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC),rates brands that have manufacturing centers in China according to their sustainable practices. The group conducted more than 1,400 audits with real-time assessments of companies' green manufacturing processes, publishing the track record of those that have worked hard to ensure their suppliers are just as environmentally conscientious as they are.
The importance of IPE's approach of course is that it harnesses supply chain data for some of the biggest global manufacturers there are. And like other rating systems, the CITI doesn't just look at the inner-workings and testimonies of the brand's factories, but evaluates the corporations' environmental impact where it really shows: in the supply chain.
This year the IPE and NRDC took another step toward improving the environmental track record of the world's largest manufacturers. Their Green Supply Chain Map, now on IPE's website, is a visual, real-time mapping of companies that are willing to support supply chain transparency.
The map is based on publicly available information from China's government databases and manufacturers' disclosures. So far, six companies have agreed to be featured on the map: Gap, Puma, Espirit, New Balance, Inditex and Target.
The voluntary disclosures are critical to IPE's ability to provide a credible evaluation of suppliers, some of which have had environmental violations in the past. But it does something else, as well: It enlists the cooperation, through membership, of companies that are willing to shine a light on their operations and demonstrate that they are actively making an effort to green their supply chain.
The mapping tool is still in its infancy stages, with some data only in Chinese and other sections lacking clarity in English. But it offers a insights that up to now, required consumers and companies to search across industry-specific websites, call manufacturers and other sources for information.
The IPE is the brainchild of renowned Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun, whose considerable research has helped shine a light on the breadth and kinds of environmental pollution that China is wrestling with. Ma's investigative journalism for the South China Morning Post and his landmark book, China's Water Crisis (1999) helped bring the country's troubling environmental problems into public view. His work has also forced multinational corporations with manufacturing ties in China to step up their sustainability efforts.
The supply chain map is IPE and NRDC's broadest effort to elicit the participation of manufacturers and suppliers to upgrade their environmental records, by keeping consumers updated as well.
The map has one other less-touted benefit: It provides a visual representation of all of the physical features that are affected by pollution in China. That includes not just rivers that have been exposed to industry discharge, but cities as well. According to these maps, China has a long way to go to improve its environmental health record. The IPE Green Supply Chain Map offers a compelling incentive for consumers and companies to actively support that goal.
Image credit: High Contrast | WikiMedia Commons
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.