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Two Steps Forward

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.

If all of this has your head spinning — it did mine — you can begin to imagine what it’s like to be Hurst right now. I asked her how much she thought that the consortium’s work is understood by its core constituencies of retailers, product manufacturers, and the various environmental and social issue groups concerned about these things.

“That's a good question,” she began, before offering a two-word assessment: “Not enough.”

She elaborated. “What I heard coming in, and as I was working at BSR with many of the companies that are also members of the consortium, is that there is not quite an understanding of the progress. I'm not sure even how much of an understanding there is about the different knowledge products. Some of the companies that are involved — the 90 or so members — have been contributing tons of intellectual capital and financial resource and their time and their energy to this, so there are people within these companies that obviously intimately understand what's being produced, and they're contributing to it and working very, very hard on it.

“However I think that the broader translation from those folks who are intimately involved into the wider setting at the companies is not happening as much as I'd like to see it happen. I think that companies beyond the members lack an understanding of what's being done and what's being accomplished. I would love to find a way to translate all of that credible, scientific, technical research to a broader audience, and to be able to tell people not only what the consortium has produced but what the potential impact of that could be, because I think it's quite huge.”

She added: “I don't know that I have a clear answer for you around how that's going to happen.”

I asked Hurst about Walmart — its outsized role within TSC, at least from a reputational perspective. “One of the challenges that I think you face,” I told her, “is that this is still, despite everybody's best efforts, seen as a Walmart initiative.”

Hurst concurred. “We have to do a better job of telling the story of how different retailers, manufacturers, members, are using this information,” she responded. “Walmart has tremendous ability to create influence and impact, and I think that's a great thing, but there are many other companies that are involved. I think it's fantastic to have Walmart involved but it's also fantastic to have the other retail members involved and to think about the ways in which their supply chains differ and the different reaches they have — for example, how working with European-headquartered companies differ, and the conversations that they have in the European markets that are different, and the influence that they may be able to have over evolving conversations and standards.”

One of the things that makes TSC unique, or at least different, is its roots in academe. Anyone who’s worked in, or with, major universities knows that it’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, universities bring tremendous intellectual firepower to any research project. On the other, they can be stifling bureaucracies that move at a snail’s pace. I asked Hurst how this was working at TSC.

“I think that academic institutions bring sort of unparalleled resources,” she said. “We have two fantastic universities with incredible resources and I think they bring a tremendous amount in terms of our ability to act with other experts, our ability to pick up the phone and talk to people in the academic field who have been working on these issues for many years, as well as being kind of a neutral party. We don't have necessarily the corporate interests at heart, nor do we have the civil society interests, nor do I see those things as entirely discrete. I think that we're a good facilitator and kind of intermediary for a lot of the work.”

The challenges, she says, come in part from being managed by two far-flung institutions — the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University — along with a third partner, Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Another is relying on student power, a challenge because, as Hurst put it, “Students don't necessarily operate on a year-round clock.” The cycles of academia don't necessarily mesh with the cycles of the marketplace.

“It’s taken several years to get going and we've hit kind of a tipping point where things are being produced now,” she said. “The pace of that accelerates very quickly, and I think that has not necessarily been communicated. So it's not that people have not been working had or they're working on some kind of academic pace. That's not it at all. I think that there's just different understandings of what can be produced in what kind of time frame. But I do feel like we really have a huge amount of momentum right now.”

So, where is this all going? I asked Hurst her hopes for the next 12 months.

“I think we're going to strengthen our organization internally. We have a few key roles that we still need to fill to be a better, stronger, more efficient organization than we were before, and I hope that that is evident to the members. I hope in six months that, you know, people will start to say, ‘This organization works incredibly efficiently, works well, is doing this with limited number of resources, but the products that they're producing are really outstanding.’

“I hope people have a better vision — and this will be somewhat in my camp to help articulate — a better vision and more excitement and passion around the incredible opportunity that's in front of us here. I think that if we can produce this type of information and if we can get it into the global supply chains, and if that can start having real impact on decision-making, that has a huge potential for impact, and I think we're just starting to see that now.

"So, when I think about taking the products that we as consumers all love and use, and making them better and better and better, that to me is so exciting and that's huge. I don't think that that will happen in six months, but I think that people will really begin to see the potential, and that will create a significant amount of momentum behind what we're doing.”

That’s precisely the kind of grounded-but-unbridled optimism you want from your new leader. So far, so good.

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