Dialogue with the Director

May 9, 2011

A Word of Advice for Corporations

Your Sustainability Messaging Could be Doing you Harm

It is the end of Duke University's spring semester. The last two weeks have been dedicated to team presentations in my Environmental Life Cycle Assessment class. The class has about 70 graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Fuqua School of Business and the Pratt School of Engineering. Many of these students are dual degree candidates obtaining an MBA and Master of Environmental Management.

What is important to individuals from industry reading this blog is these students are most likely your key demographics. They are the consumers of your products now and for the next few decades. They will also likely influence consumptive patterns.

For the class assignment, each student-team had to select a retailer or manufacturer and one of the consumer products they sell. Companies ranged from large to small. The products included everything from food and beverages to office supplies and electronics.

Using LCA inspiration and analytic techniques, each team evaluated how the firm is positioning itself on sustainability and compared the firm to companies of similar size. Focus areas included the organizational structure of the firm and its ability to address sustainability, indicators and metrics used to benchmark, validation of the reports, leadership and transparency.

Similarly for products, groups sought to obtain any company-provided life cycle assessment or similar type of report that documented environmental impacts. Additionally, they researched peer-reviewed journal articles to see if any third party life cycle evaluations of the product or their product category were conducted and available to compare with claims by the company.

Without making this into a long paper, here are some of the results:

Firm Sustainability

  • The firms graded lowest by students were companies that made claims of environmental reductions without linking them with clearly described benchmarks. For example, firms who stated they have reduced energy consumption by 10 % without providing benchmarking details faired poorly.
  • Most company websites were not organized in a way that meaningfully communicated sustainability information. Students found themselves digging deep to locate useful information, leading them to believe companies considered sustainability to be an afterthought.
  • Certifications and eco-labels were not consistently used. Claims by companies using different eco-labels were given almost no weight by the students since there is no consistent utilization. Additionally, in many cases the lack of transparency and scientific rigor behind the labels actually caused the students to provide the company lower scores.
     

Product Sustainability 

  • Most companies did not disclose internal LCA results, generally citing proprietary reasons. When the results were available, they were usually aggregated and lacked details.
  • As part of their life cycle and sustainable systems analysis, students created an "intervention" or "innovation" strategy to reduce the environmental burdens in one phase of the product using LCA software to verify. In most cases, they were able to create a clear reduction and benefit. This led them to believe either the company was not exploring these opportunities or consumer acceptance was the rationale for not implementing similar strategies.
  • The LCAs, or product sustainability data, in all all cases failed to gain the full confidence of the student consumers due to lack of third party validation.
  • Companies generally failed to leverage opportunities to communicate the sustainability of a product to the consumer or ways consumers could help reduce both the environmental footprint and costs of using the product.
     

The bottom line--be careful how you communicate sustainability. A lack of depth, details and transparency can actually be doing your company harm. 

With the permission of my student teams, I will be forwarding many of their detailed reports to the executives of the companies reviewed. The hope is their projects will provide insights and value to those seeking a place in the new global sustainability marketplace. If your firm is interested in having a student team research your company, feel free to contact me.

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