Almost every company is feeling pressure to report on its sustainability, i.e. the environmental and social impacts due to its operations. As stakeholders look at whether these obligations are being upheld, the emphasis has been on a company-level assessment of performance. Internally, companies audit their environmental management systems according to standards such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14000, a standard for environmental management systems that is applicable to any business worldwide. Externally, corporate watchdog and consumer advocacy groups focus on the behavior of the overall company. Even progressive programs such as the Carbon Disclosure Project emphasize measuring company performance.

While these efforts are a necessary starting point, we will fail to reach our global sustainability goals if we only measure sustainability of a company rather than the sustainability of the products it makes. The Sustainability Consortium, led by Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas, is developing the science and infrastructure needed to support more widespread and standardized reporting of product sustainability, so as to drive a new generation of products and supply chains.

There are several problems with only measuring sustainability of companies and not their products. First, consumers don’t buy companies; they buy products. Products will become greener if demand from retailers and consumers for green products increases, and communicating the sustainability of a product is the most direct way to shift consumer behavior.

Second, an emphasis on the product manufacturer alone tends to obscure the important role that the supply chain and the consumer play in the product’s overall footprint. By focusing on product sustainability, it is possible to take the product’s entire life cycle into consideration, which helps focus innovation efforts. Third, developing tools to measure a product’s sustainability while it is still being designed will help companies make more sustainable design choices up front, before the product is ever produced.

The Sustainability Consortium received initial seed funding from Walmart in July 2009, and has since added more than 40 other manufacturers, suppliers, government agencies and non-governmental agencies (NGOs). The initial emphasis of the Consortium is how product sustainability can be measured and reported to retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy. These same data and systems may be used by other groups outside of the Consortium to derive consumer-facing sustainability information, such as is communicated with many eco-labels today. Because sustainability science is relatively new, much research is needed to determine what data are critical to report regarding product sustainability, and how they might be efficiently reported from business-to-business and business-to-retailer.

The Sustainability Consortium’s current work consists of both sector working groups and Consortium-wide research initiatives. Within the sectors, teams representing multiple stakeholders are developing sustainable measurement and reporting standards for a select number of product categories in order to design a standardized way for such efforts to be scaled to all consumer goods products. Projects have begun in electronics, home and personal care, and food and beverage sectors. For example, in electronics the Consortium is working with Best Buy, Dell, the Environmental Protection Agency, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Toshiba and Walmart to develop measurement standards for computer laptops, desktops and monitors. The team is examining existing standards such as EPEAT and ENERGY STAR, and also looking at recent research concerning a computer’s environmental footprint. The electronics sector team expects to have initial recommendations by this summer.

The Sustainability Consortium also is pursuing a variety of research projects that support work in all of the sectors, such as assessment and scoring, reporting and auditing, and consumer science. For example, researchers in the Consortium are developing a “social hot spot” database that will allow companies to be aware of certain regions of the world where suppliers have historically had a poor track record with things such as worker health and safety, and worker rights. Another research project is examining how industrial buyers use product sustainability information in purchasing decisions.

This work is benefiting the state of Arizona in several ways. First, the Sustainability Consortium has brought in several million dollars in revenue, which in turn has produced a number of new research jobs within the Consortium and has opened up research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. Second, our high public visibility has brought media attention to ASU and furthered the university’s leadership position in sustainability.  Third, both our students and university operations are benefiting. The Sustainability Consortium sponsored the local competition for the Walmart Better Living 2010 Business Plan Competition, and is happy to be sending a team to the semifinals that is looking at growing agave here in Arizona and processing it into ethanol. We also recently worked with ASU’s purchasing department to develop a “carbon calculator” for ASU’s purchases of goods and services. The calculator will help ASU prioritize for which product categories it should develop more stringent purchasing guidelines.

The Sustainability Consortium will continue to look for ways to “think globally and act locally,” working with a diverse set of stakeholders to provide value and synergy to global sustainability initiatives and developing opportunities for ASU faculty, students and staff to help make consumer products more sustainable.