What companies may gain from P&G study on sustainability metrics

What companies may gain from P&G study on sustainability metrics

Procter & Gamble and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced they’ve begun a collaborative research and development study that could lead to new tools for measuring sustainability objectives. The effort will focus on metrics within corporations’ manufacturing facilities and their supply chains.

The Cincinnati-based consumer products giant is teaming up with researchers at EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory (NRMRL) in a five-year study that aims to develop a scientific approach to analyzing and measuring sustainability within its tissue and towel products division, said Annie Weisbrod, Ph.D., a principal scientist at P&G.

The packaged goods company -- with more than 50 brands and manufacturing facilities around the globe -- has been pursuing an ambitious long-term sustainability program. The current agreement with the EPA is expected to help the company move further along in meeting some of that program’s goals, said Weisbrod.

For example, P&G already developed life cycle assessments in its computerized systems and has environmental management tracking systems. P&G would like to link those two systems so the data can be integrated in a way that helps managers make better operations and supply chain decisions, she said.

“We’re hoping this study will help us figure out how to link them and add more metrics to include the social, labor and cost economics metrics,” Weisbrod said. “We’ve made lots of operational improvements and we’re designing products with sustainable innovation in mind, but now we want to go to the next level."

Photo of Procter & Gamble logo provided by Proctor & Gamble

The EPA is engaging in this kind of study because the agency wants to encourage all companies to think about sustainability issues within their supply chains and other operational processes from a more scientific and systematic approach, according to Douglas Young, chief of the EPA’s Clean Processes Branch in the agency’s Sustainable Technology Division. He’ll be working closely with Weisbrod on this long-term project from the division's offices in in Cincinnati.

Many corporations -- including P&G, Walmart and others -- use supplier scorecards as one format for collecting data about other companies’ sustainability practices before deciding whether to include them in their supply chain. The scorecard replies help company sustainability managers decide whether the suppliers meet their established criteria. Scorecards aren’t necessarily a bad tool, Young said. However, they often fall short of their goals, he added.

“Studies I’ve seen show some companies aren’t getting results they hoped for with these scorecards because they don’t tell you enough,” he said. “We’re trying to bring to the table (with the P&G study) a systems way of thinking about these problems beyond just a scorecard. You need to look at a company’s entire supply chain and evaluate it as a single system to capture the effects of the things people aren’t considering. We want to shed some light on how to do that.”

Young wouldn’t elaborate on specifics of the study, but said the EPA will bring its expertise in sustainability metrics researchers there have applied to other systems, such as regional watershed systems. The agency hopes to apply that knowledge to supply chain systems even though it will be collecting a different set of data, he noted.

P&G environmental scientists and their counterparts at the EPA in Cincinnati have worked together over the years in joint discussions and lectures when they’ve been invited to local universities and other nearby conferences. It was a natural fit for both parties to agree on a collaborative study after they brainstormed the idea for this project, recalled Weisbrod. 

“We’re all environmental scientists working on this project, but the benefit for us to work with the EPA is they have the bigger picture that we don’t get because we work in a specific sector,” she said.

For its part, the EPA had made sustainability and rigorous study top priorities since 2010. At the time, Paul Anastas, Ph.D., was the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Research and Development. According to Young, Anastas set the tone for research within the agency by declaring that companies and other organizations need to take a more systematic approach to complex problems about sustainability instead of relying solely on simple forms of gathering data such as scorecards.

“Anastas told us you can’t just look at part of the problem," Young said. "When this project was discussed, it fell into that view and that strategy."

Study implementation, reporting and desired outcomes

There aren’t any plans for the EPA to add other companies to this research study or pursue anything similar with other corporations. However, over the course of the study, the two parties involved will share publicly some of the results they accumulate and synthesize, noted Young. He cautioned not to expect any announcements before next summer.

Weisbrod emphasized the study just launched with the EPA isn’t likely to give P&G much of a competitive advantage while the research is ongoing. The company will test different combinations of metrics and tools to figure out which configurations make the most sense and researchers will publish those results in the scientific literature, she noted.

“Our interest is in embedding sustainability in our operations and design processes so there’s institutional systems in place,” she said. “I’d expect that to have advantages in the long-term. But in R&D, you have to test it first and we’ll have multiple iterations of whatever we develop. Only when it works will it be helpful for us.”

This is not the first collaborative sustainability project the EPA has pursued with corporations in the U.S. There are about two dozen others either still underway or completed in the last five years, said Young. Some are more narrowly defined, on topics such as green chemistry, and others encompass a broader scope like the one just announced with P&G.

Will the five-year research study ultimately lead to development of better tools to measure sustainability within company operations and supply chains? Both Young and Weisbrod said they hope so, but there’s no guarantee.

“A tool is nice and something we’re working towards, but it’s more important to get that seminal science out there to show people how to think about these problems and solve them on their own,” Young said. “You don’t give someone a fish, you teach them how to fish.”