Sheila Bonini and the future of The Sustainability Consortium

Two Steps Forward

Sheila Bonini and the future of The Sustainability Consortium

Sheila Bonini, CEO of Sustainability Consortium. Photo courtesy TSC.

Two months ago, Sheila Bonini became the third chief executive of The Sustainability Consortium, a 5-year-old membership group comprising consumer packaged goods companies, their suppliers and a few retailers, notably Walmart, one of the organization’s original conveners.

It’s a challenging job, what with TSC’s ambitious agenda to create metrics and tools to assess the environmental and social impacts of a breathtakingly broad range of products, from televisions to toothpaste. Its research agenda and partnerships cover the globe.

Bonini, who previously spent 15 years with McKinsey & Co., including 10 working on sustainability issues, brings some pretty good research chops. At McKinsey, she co-led the company’s Sustainability Transformation Service, and her work focused on the link between social and environmental impact and financial value creation. In recent years Bonini served TSC in a leadership capacity as a consultant and as lead on collaborative research work. Independently, she has led research collaborations with the World Wildlife Fund, the Carbon Disclosure Project and other TSC member organizations.

I recently spoke with Bonini to learn more about why she took the job and how she sees TSC’s work unfolding in the coming years. (The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.) I’ll continue the conversation with Bonini on stage in February at the 2015 GreenBiz Forum, which is produced in partnership with TSC.

Joel Makower: Sheila, tell me why you took this job.

Sheila Bonini: I guess the top reason is that TSC is such a unique and exciting place to be. It's a small organization, but through the work that it's doing, it is able to have a really outsized impact in terms of driving social and environmental improvement across consumer goods. And the reach it can have through the membership is just pretty astounding.

Makower: What kind of impact is it having at this point?

Bonini: One is its coverage, which is pretty broad, multi-impact, so it covers all different social and environmental impacts. It's also in multi-product categories, so that's part of its reach and breadth.

It's also the way TSC goes about it: It's science-based, so it's making sure we're figuring out what really matters, but the flip side of it is that it's stakeholder-informed. So the way TSC approaches products is around metrics and measurement. But it's first saying that there a proper scientific reason that one impact or another is important.

On top of that, it's using its multi-stakeholder approach with corporates, with NGOs, with academics, to ensure that TSC's products are practical and usable and relevant. So I think that that approach is unique as well, and drives the strongest kind of content and output.

Makower: Tell me how this aligns with your career path. And I don't mean your CV so much as how TSC is the next logical place for you to be.

Bonini: As you know, I've been working the past 15 years with McKinsey & Co., the past 10 years focused on sustainability. If there's a theme that goes through my work over the past 10 years, it's been on driving sustainability impact, but doing so in a way that drives business value — that kind of win/win.

The other thing that comes out in my work is clarity of focus for managing sustainability, trying to get through a laundry list of things, getting down to what's really important.

I think that both of those things are potentially very strong pieces that I bring to TSC. In a sense, TSC's products today are focused on trying to figure out what's important, and trying to take those prioritized impacts and do something about them.

Makower: One of my observations about TSC is that it's been hard for outsiders to get their arms around it, and even for some insiders. The elevator pitch for TSC seems to shift over time, which is not unusual for a startup organization. I'm wondering what the elevator pitch is right now.

Bonini: The Sustainability Consortium, first of all, is about helping companies make consumer goods that are going to be more sustainable. How? Through measurement and reporting systems. We have built an asset that enables companies to develop reporting systems, and we're at the stage where we're seeing a lot of different piloting by our members to improve their supply chains.

Makower: Okay, so where do you want to take it?

Bonini: I think the next stage is exciting, and we're seeing some of it now. The first is how do we support our members in using our reporting system and implementing it? How do we get them to start asking suppliers about the sustainability of their products?

We're just beginning to translate some of this complicated science into practical business tools. That's one of the exciting things that we'll be doing, working on implementation.

The other thing is working with this information, not just for reporting purposes, but to help our members manage their business better. One of the things that TSC has been working on is commodity mapping. This isn't just about reporting. We can use that knowledge to help our members better manage risk in their supply chain.

One of the exciting projects we're starting is in China, with Nanjing University, where we're working on training at the factory level. What's exciting there is to take some of the knowledge that we've developed and bring it all the way around, closing the loop of the supply chain, getting to innovation where the impact happens, be that at the factory level, the farm level, or maybe, in electronics, at the recycling level.

Makower: I was just about to ask you about your global domination strategy. Your predecessors developed a number of relationships with universities outside the U.S. Is TSC becoming more of a global organization?

Bonini: I think the relationship with Wageningen University in the Netherlands is reasonably mature, in terms of the length of TSC's history. And there's some exciting work going on there, for example, with Ahold around using TSC's products. So that's certainly a terrific accomplishment. The other relationship is with Nanjing University, which is more recent.

I don't see TSC developing right away a significant number of international hubs. We will probably look at it as our needs grow. In the short term, we're well-positioned to work with Europe through our partner in Wageningen, and then with China through Nanjing. And that's a lot for the organization to digest, so I don't have any immediate plans to go expanding into 50 different hubs.

Makower: So when we talk in the fall of 2015, a year from now, what's the story you want to be able to tell about where TSC has gone, or what it's doing, or poised to do?

Bonini: That's a great question. One is I want to be able to talk about the impact of our members. We have covered a significant number of product categories. We have a significant number of companies actually beginning to use the tools.

What I want to be talking about in a year's time, and going forward, is translating that into impact — reduction in carbon, better labor situations, reduction in water, etc. We may not have all those numbers, but that's where I want us to be able to talk, which is using TSC's products, TSC's knowledge, to drive impact on the ground.

So, in a year from now, I'd like to be telling you about the exciting things we're doing in factories in China, exciting things that we're doing on the farm, and how those are feeding back into and informing the measurement and reporting systems that are TSC's products. I'd like to be talking about how our products are being implemented, and the impact that they're having.