The Sustainability Consortium: A Status Report

Since its launch in July 2009, The Sustainability Consortium has been the subject of intrigue, not to mention myths and misunderstanding. Founded initially at the behest, and funding, of Walmart, it now boasts a membership of 75 or so companies, plus nonprofits and government agencies, plus affiliations with more than a score of academic institutions around the world. Just last week, the group, which is housed jointly at Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas, announced it was planting a flag across the Atlantic, with affiliations at universities in the U.K. and The Netherlands.

But what, exactly, is the group doing? Is it, as some would have it, creating a rating system for products? Is it establishing standards by which products will be certified as sustainable? Is it merely a cover organization for companies seeking to appear proactive?

None of the above. During 2011, the consortium seems to have found its footing, conducting research and building tools to help deliver science-based thinking to manufacturers, retailers, and others. In April, it hired its first fulltime executive director: Bonnie Nixon, formerly a sustainability executive at Hewlett-Packard and, before that, founder of an environmental consulting firm. Earlier this month, Nixon issued a 100-day assessment and plan, her first official statement. It listed more than a dozen activities and achievements the group had undertaken since her arrival.

Last week, I spoke with Nixon to learn more: the consortium's ambitions and plans, and where the group is headed over the coming year. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

Joel Makower: You've been at The Sustainability Consortium for a little over four months now. Is it everything you expected?

Bonnie Nixon: In many ways it's even more exciting than what I expected. As I've gotten more and more grounded with it, and met with most of the members and all of the staff and many people externally, it's become clear to me the space in which we need to be playing, the space that creates a tremendous opportunity and momentum for us.

Makower: So what space is that?

Nixon: I was hired under the premise that I focus on three things. One was delivery. The second was internationalization, making sure it's not just considered a North American initiative or just a Walmart initiative. And the third was growth -- that we be conscious about our vision and mission and how we're going to achieve growth objectives.

Bonnie NixonWhen I think of growth it's not just "Let's get a lot more members." It's what should our model be for the future so that we ourselves are a sustainable organization? How do we support innovation and products. How do we create assurance out there, not just for consumers, but for the huge B-to-B space, providing the right toolsets for retailers and buyers.

Makower: You mentioned that "delivery" was one of your goals, but I'm not entirely sure what that means.

Nixon: We have to be really clear on what promises we are making, and that we're delivering on those promises. When I came into this, my observation was that there was a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation about who we are from the moment it was announced. And initially people thought we were just an index, right? As time went on, there was a lot of discussion on what exactly are we and how should we evolve.

What became clear was that we needed to help navigate this very complex space that contains lifecycle assessments, lifecycle thinking, lifecycle approaches, but also look at other innovative approaches like Cradle to Cradle, biomimicry, natural capitalism, and whole systems design. How do you deal with the fact that, to date, there hasn't been consensus around things like biodiversity or social impacts or toxicity in materials?

Ultimately, delivery is about our longer-term vision, which is how we advance the science to drive a new generation of innovative products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives. They're not mutually exclusive. We have to recognize that in order for companies to be actively engaged in many of the environmental and social things, that they actually have to be viable companies.