Organisation - February 7, 2013

Sustainability at the top

How do you measure sustainability? Companies, NGOs and scientists are working on this question in something called The Sustainability Consortium. Wageningen UR has been coordinating this global collaboration for over a year now. Time for an introduction.

SC is an important development. Since Wagenin­gen UR was designated European coordination centre, Aalt Dijkhuizen wastes no opportunity to announce this. Confirmation came recently from an unexpected quarter, when Scientific American pronounced TSC one of the top ten 'world-changing ideas' of 2012. Game changers that 'make the impossible possible', said the science magazine. Koen Boone (LEI) is leading the team that coordinates TSC in Europe. Here is his story in seven key words.
Measurable
TSC wants consumer products to become more sustainable. Measurably more sustainable. A key task for the consortium is therefore to develop a measuring system for sustainability, with indicators for different types of product. In other words, to obtain measurable data: target figures that buyers and suppliers can work towards together. With the whole world speaking the same 'language'. In practice it boils down to TSC measuring the sustainability of each product category on the basis of the available scientific research. Boone: 'We find out which aspects of sustainability are relevant, to what extent, and what the prospects are for making improvements. And not just to one part of the process, but throughout the entire chain. On the basis of this dossier, indicators are established. This has now been done for the first group of 70 categories. Walmart is working on that now in discussions with suppliers. And retail chains in Europe are setting to work on it too. Ahold will soon be starting a pilot scheme in the Netherlands.'
Toys
An example: packaging is a source of frustration and waste. The packaging of toys is particularly notorious. You have just given your daughter a lovely doll and you cannot get the thing out of its package, which it is tied into with countless fine wires. Infuriating, and very wasteful into the bargain. Walmart talked to suppliers about this and the problem was solved, says Boone. Peanuts? Not at all. Every year the company saves enough wire to circle the earth eight times. There are advantages to large scale: 'Because Walmart buys in such massive quantities, the environmental impact of this saving is big. So it is about relatively simple things, precisely because there is so much that can be improved.'
Label
Will TSC's work lead to another ecolabel? No and yes. TSC is first and foremost a business-to-business initiative, to borrow a bit of management jargon. And in terms of sustainability, the biggest potential gains are short-term, according to Boone. Suppliers and retailers egg each other on produce their goods in more sustainable ways. And it can make them look good in the eyes of their customers too. Boone: 'On the basis of our indicators, Walmart wants to put a sustainability score on its products, a kind of weighted average between 1 and 100. They can do that, but it is an individual member's action. A score of that kind does not automatically come out of our indicators. A retailer is keen to stand out from the crowd for consumers.' Communication with consumers is indeed the TSC's ultimate aim, says Boone. 'But the chances of our launching a label that indicates which products are sustainable are very small indeed.'
Membership
TSC started in 2009 as an initiative by Walmart. There are currently 107 members worldwide, including giants such as Tesco, Disney, BASF, Coca-Cola and L'Oréal. The Dutch members are DSM, Unilever, PRE Consultancy, Grodan (steel wool suppliers) and Ahold. And on the NGO side, the WWF and People 4 Earth, which have their headquarters in the Netherlands. Ahold has ambitious plans for TSC, and will be revealing them soon, says Boone, who hopes Ahold will be a motor of change in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole. As Walmart has become in the United States.
Dilemma
Any company, institution or organization with its sights set on sustainability can join TSC. There were some eyebrows raised, however, when a tobacco company expressed interest. Some heated internal debate ensued, as TSC takes social issues such as health into account alongside environmental ones. Boone sums up the problem: 'What are the options for improvement if the best option is actually to close down the company?' But where do you draw the line? Would Heineken be allowed to join, for example? Yes, it would. Alcohol is not unhealthy by definition, explains Boone. 'It depends on how you use it.' The tobacco giant dropped out of its own accord anyway.
Exclusive
Membership of TSC does not come free. Large companies pay 100,000 dollars, and smaller ones pay 25,000 dollars per year for first-class membership. These amounts give them access to still exclusive knowledge about sustainability, not to mention influence. Which counts. But Boone acknowledges the criticism that TSC knowledge ought to be made more widely accessible. 'I would prefer to throw open our knowledge so that everyone can see what we do, keep tabs on us and benefit from our knowledge.' To this end, TSC is working on a way of becoming less dependent on membership fees. Through grants, for example, or by knocking on the door of institutions such as the Postcode Lottery or the Gates Foundation. The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs has already coughed up, which has doubled the budget for Wageningen UR from half a million to one million at a go.
Prestige
Wageningen UR has been leading the European branch of TSC for one and a half years now. As a member of the board of directors of TSC, Aalt Dijkhuizen holds discussions with managers from Walmart, DSM, Mars, WWF and Unilever. But what do we stand to gain from all this? A great deal, says Boone. Prestige, for a start. 'TSC is a global network of trendsetting companies. So we are exposed to that, as well as being part of an extensive network of companies, NGOs and universities. Very many Wageningers are working on sustainability in one form or another. It is very easy for us to link up parts of Wageningen UR with companies wanting to do something about sustainability. So it brings us assignments and money. When you are doing acquisition you can refer to the fact that we are working intensively with all sorts of global players.' 

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