Driving the Sustainability Consortium's ambitious agenda

Running the Sustainability Consortium is not for the faint of heart.

The research organization, whose members include many of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies and their key suppliers, is housed in two different universities based 1,000 miles apart. It was formed by the retail giant Walmart, under whose shadow it still operates, despite the diversification of funding and interests the consortium has doggedly developed in its three years of existence. Its membership includes 90 multinational giants, each with its own agenda and interests. Since its founding, the consortium has struggled to define itself publicly, even as it developed an ambitious research agenda; some of its own members complain that they don’t understand what the group is up to. The consortium’s most recent executive director, its first, lasted just 10 months before departing. An impressive list of individuals pondered applying to fill the job vacancy but, for various reasons, opted out or didn’t make the cut.

Enter Kara Hurst. A former vice president at BSR, the 20-year-old think tank and consultancy focusing on corporate sustainability issues, Hurst rose to the top of the list being considered to lead the consortium. She brings to the party a reputation as a high-energy leader who gets things done. One of her former colleagues at BSR described Hurst to me using phrases like “incredibly ambitious” and “a force of nature,” someone who engenders in her team members “a lot of loyalty, sometimes inspired by fear.”

Hurst has been CEO of the Sustainability Consortium — TSC, as it’s commonly referred to — for barely a month, operating from her base in New York City. Last week, at the three-week mark of her tenure, I checked in with Hurst to find out how things were going, her first impressions of the organization from the inside, and where she hopes to take TSC over the next year or so.

I started out by asking Hurst her biggest surprise since joining TSC. “My biggest surprise is how far along we are in the development of the knowledge products. I knew that it had been a long path to get to the development of some of these knowledge products — the category sustainability profiles and the KPIs and things like that — and that people are anxious to get to see them. The perception I had coming in was that not as much had been produced.”

The “knowledge products” Hurst refers to are at the heart of TSC’s work to provide tools and resources for evaluating and rating the sustainability impacts of consumer products. They fall into three categories:

  • a Dossier, a literature bank of the research around the sustainability impacts of consumer products;
  • a Category Sustainability Profile, or CSP, a summary document of a given product category that summarizes its different “hot spots” — that is, its various social and environmental impacts; and
  • Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, derived from the CSP, the questions that the retailers can ask of their suppliers to understand a product’s sustainability performance and provide some opportunities for improvement.

There’s a fourth category — life-cycle assessments, or LCAs, that the consortium had earlier intended to develop at this point, but backed away from for the time being, given LCAs’ resource-intensive nature.

Next page: A failure to communicate