By Mason Carr
A University of Arkansas research organization that gathers information on consumer goods’ sustainability has been ranked as one of the top 10 world-changing ideas of 2012.
Scientific American recognized the Sustainability Consortium in their December issue as one of the potential “game changers” that are “not pie-in-the-sky notions but practical breakthroughs that have been proved or prototyped and are poised to scale up greatly.”
The Sustainability Consortium began in 2009 when Walmart Stores, Inc., gave a gift to the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University to make detailed reports on the sustainability of consumer goods in an effort to respond to activist groups and others’ growing concerns about the sustainability of products sold, said Jon Johnson, University of Arkansas professor and co-founder of the consortium.
In the mid-2000s, Walmart had been under scrutiny for its labor practices and environmental impact. That is when H. Lee Scott Jr., Walmart’s chief executive from 2000 until 2009, began a push for environmental sustainability as a way to pretty up Walmart’s image as well as improve their bottom line.
Although there are sustainability rating systems already available to the public, “the consortium’s ratings will factor in closely held data on emissions, waste, labor practices, water usage and other sensitive factors that will become available only as large corporate players exert pressure on suppliers to disclose them. The data should make the index more comprehensive than others,” according to the Scientific American article.
“Essentially, we scan the scientific literature, the published literature, and we conduct structured interviews with panels of experts to gather information about product categories (ex. milk, laundry detergent, etc.) to see impacts associated with production, distribution, usage and disposal of those products,” Johnson said.
The consortium uses that information, which is fully available to members that include companies, nongovernmental organizations and academics, to create a category sustainability profile, a summary of the best available research as well as issues that have garnered attention but not much scientific research, Johnson said.
The consortium also provides key performance indicators, or a series of questions a retailer may ask a manufacturer, he said. The consortium is working on including social indicators that could include factors such as safe working conditions, child labor, and rights of association, Johnson said.
Each product is analyzed through its life cycle, from its raw materials extraction and processing to its manufacturing, assembly, packaging, distribution, retail time, consumer use and disposal. For each stage of the life cycle, the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, water quality, human health and other factors are analyzed.
Along with Walmart, the consortium has about 90 members, companies and nongovernmental organizations, including Coca-Cola, Tesco, Disney, McDonald’s, World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, World Resources Institute and CARE International.
“The Sustainability Consortium is the foundation” in switching to more sustainable products throughout Walmart’s supply chain, said Jeff Rice, senior director of sustainability for Walmart. “It drives innovation” for finding sustainable options “in partnership with our suppliers.”
Although a consumer’s guide has not been created using the consortium, a certified organization could do so if they wanted, Johnson said.
In the future, Walmart will use the consortium’s findings to engage its customers looking for sustainable products, Rice said. Results of the research have not yet been made available but you can keep up with what’s happening at sustainabilityconsortium.org.