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Smart Partnerships, IoT, Certifications Helping Brands Meet Consumer Demand for Better Products

Since the introduction of the first ecolabels and standards for organic products in the late 1980s and '90s, sustainability standards and certifications have proliferated across myriad industries. From food to manufactured goods, standards and certifications are helping consumers and businesses alike make better purchasing decisions to ensure they respect the triple bottom line.

With last year’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations, standards and certifications are becoming more important than ever, according to Jason Potts, senior associate of Sustainable Markets and Responsible Trade at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, speaking on Wednesday at the ISEAL Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Washington, D.C.

“We need to expand concept to economic inclusiveness in accordance with the SDGs," Potts said. “We need to focus on being able to measure impacts, and the SDGs create the platform to do this.”

The SDGs contain 17 goals with 169 targets covering a broad range of sustainable development issues, including ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests.

Partnerships helping Target clean up its supply chain

Even retail behemoths such as Target can’t hope to go it alone if they want to truly clean up their supply chains, said Kelly Caruso, president of Target Sourcing Services.

“While this journey has been rewarding, it’s also been humbling … we’ve had to embrace the fact that there are limits to what we can do alone,” Caruso said. “To reach our full potential, we’ve had to look beyond our own walls.”

Caruso said Target engages in two chief partnerships to ensure a sustainable supply chain — the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Clean by Design initiative and with the nonprofit, Goodweave.

Clean by Design involves big companies pooling their combined buying power to influence fabric suppliers. Through this collaboration, the group was able to get one supplier to cut energy use by 20 percent and another to reduce water use by 500,000 tons annually.

Meanwhile, Goodweave focuses on one of the most tragic problems afflicting global supply chains — child labor. The nonprofit certifies that child labor is not present in supply chains for rugs that Target sources from India, and also creates alternatives to child labor by building free schools for children who might otherwise run unattended while their parents work.

Customers demanding certified products

Target also isn’t doing all of these just because it makes them feel good — its customers are demanding responsibly produced and sustainably certified products.

“Retail is a tough industry — consumers have more choices than ever before,” said Caruso “So companies are looking to differentiate.”

The retailer’s $1 billion Made to Matter collection includes such ethical brands as Plum Organics and Method.

“Millennials demand sustainability and increasingly are willing to pay for these products,” Caruso said.

Likewise, embracing sustainability standards and certification creates a sense of higher purpose for Target employees, which reduces absenteeism and turnover, as well as improving productivity.

Collaboration key to scaling standards

Many corporate sustainability teams are limited in staff and capacity — often they are forced to operate on relatively small budgets dealing with billions of dollars worth of business, said Kevin Ogorzalek, VP of Partnerships at Bonsucro.

Partnerships can help companies pool their resources to affect more change together than they ever could alone.

“Collaborating doesn’t mean you have to be at the same level of sustainability,” Karin Bogaers, sustainability manager at Ahold, pointed out. “There is a lot of potential still for companies to collaborate who are at different levels of sustainability but moving in the same direction.”

But collaboration isn’t easy and it isn’t quick — it takes time to develop the relationships needed to make the most of partnerships.

“It took 40 years for electricity to become the norm in the U.S.,” Ogorzalek said. “It takes time to collaborate with standards.”

All of this can help lead to a revolution in thinking that helps overcome institutional resistance to change. Coming together can help the industry take bigger steps than individual companies would be comfortable taking alone.

“Ultimately change is always difficult … when solutions get kicked down into technical levels of organizations,” said Chris Ninnes, chief executive at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. “It’s always easier to find a problem than a solution.”

ICT exposes supply chain blind spots

Companies with global supply chains suffer from the classic problem of “not knowing what they don’t know.” These information gaps often exist far upstream in the supply chain, but create blind spots that can compromise the entire system’s sustainability.

“The majority of our supply chains are blind — the first thing we need to do is to get information to move through the supply chain,” said Sarah Lewis, managing director at The Sustainability Consortium. “Certifications and partnerships across supply chains can open up these blind spots.”

Consumers increasingly are demanding supply chain sustainability information, which creates a challenge for certifications. The questions are going beyond labels and into the specifics of how much water is being saved and acres of deforestation is being averted, Lewis said.

In other words: There is a lack of data and a mechanism to communicate it to stakeholders.

But technology is changing how we consume information, as information communication technologies such as remote sensing satellites and smartphones proliferate across the globe. While collecting data is great, there is a growing need for means to communicate it.

“We found that everyone is collecting raw data but not investing in how to share it — translating it into meaningful information,” said Crystal Davis, director of Global Forest Watch at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Global Forest Watch is a an interactive, real-time, forest-monitoring system that combines satellite technology, data sharing and human networks around the world to provide information to help better manage forests. WRI developed the system, in partnership with Google, the University of Maryland and the UN Environment Program.

As Davis pointed out: “Sometimes we need to build a communication tool that builds trust — and it’s not always about the science.”

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