Sustainable consumption: Creating standards to deliver better products

A Thought Leader Series Piece

Kara Hurst

By Kara Hurst

Note: Kara Hurst is the CEO of The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), a joint initiative between Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas that is working to develop science-based tools for measuring and reporting consumer product sustainability.

By almost any measure, global consumption is growing rapidly. Yet many businesses still struggle to produce sustainable products, and most consumers don’t know how to identify and differentiate them. The result is: we continue to waste valuable natural resources, compromise ecosystems, and threaten human health.

Businesses and consumers desperately need a better system for assessing the sustainability of consumer products. To be viable, the system must be one that businesses can trust and consumers can easily apply to make informed decisions.

Such an assessment system must also be rigorously science-based, simple to understand, and fully transparent. And it must earn the buy-in of a vast cross-section of corporations, watchdog organizations, and governments.

Many stakeholders, many products

The Sustainability Consortium has been working to create such a system since its launch in 2009. Conceived as a global multi-stakeholder organization and structured as a joint initiative between Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas, the Consortium has grown to encompass nearly 30 colleagues at four global locations—Arizona, Arkansas, The Netherlands, and most recently China.

The primary goal of the Consortium is to develop science-based tools that advance the measurement and reporting of consumer product sustainability. The research required to meet that goal is comprehensive.

The Consortium currently covers more than 150 product categories across nine consumer product industry sectors, including food, beverages, agriculture, electronics, toys, paper, pulp, forestry, and home and personal care products. The work is made more robust and complete through our partnerships with civil organizations that help us better understand important stakeholder views. In the Consortium, we collaborate with more than 100 member companies and organizations to gather critical information and integrate research findings into business operations and strategies.

Creating the ultimate sustainability index

For these efforts, the Consortium was selected by Scientific American magazine as one of the top ten World Changing Ideas for 2012. The magazine not only described the Consortium’s work as the “ultimate sustainability index,” but also called it a superior sustainability measurement and reporting system, largely because of its comprehensive nature and cross-sector approach that factors in sensitive data from companies on emissions, waste, labor practices, and water usage, among other factors.

These words from a venerable and highly respected science magazine are high praise. Nevertheless, there is much more potential impact to be had from a scientific approach to consumer product sustainability. For example, the Consortium has started to identify and address gaps in our research. It has started a commodity mapping effort to provide members with information on probable crop production or threats. By embracing the power of industry collaboration, the Consortium has also begun to examine the effectiveness of electronic product take-back programs and the success of product collection and treatment.

The measure of future success

Even as our research becomes more complex, the Consortium needs to stay focused on growth—both in global reach, such as through our entry into China, and through adding new sectors of consumer products such as clothing, footwear, and textiles. In addition, we are finding ways to scale up the research work, reach new audiences, and attract many more retailers and manufacturers. And it must continue to engage more consumers, regulatory entities, investors and capital market leaders, and civil society organizations with expertise in social and environmental focus areas.

This is no small dream for a young organization standing at the intersection of science and global action. The measure of our future success at TSC—and our progress—will be not just how the research is used and integrated into the global supply chain, but also the positive impacts it generates for people and the planet.

About the author: Kara Hurst was appointed as the CEO of The Sustainability Consortium in August of 2012. Prior to TSC, Kara spent eleven years at BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), where she served as vice president. A skilled practitioner of corporate social responsibility, Ms. Hurst’s areas of expertise include corporate transparency, responsible supply chain management, management structures, policy assessment, and industry collaboration.