July 29, 2010

IBM's Green Supply Chain

While the "greening of the supply chain" has been in the works for decades, the movement has really taken off in 2010. In the last few months, a number of corporate giants have announced new initiatives that pressure suppliers to do much more to measure and manage their environmental impacts. The big guns asking the questions include Pepsi, P&G (more in a future post), and IBM.

For years, most supply chain programs have included a similar, somewhat narrow range of demands: stay on the right side of the law, keep operations within regulatory levels of air and water pollution, avoid child labor, and so on. Wal-Mart has already pushed that envelope to dive much deeper into supplier practices (packaging, fossil fuel use, and even how some things are sourced). These new announcements also expand the demands in different ways. In recent years, most of the high-profile supply chain initiatives like Wal-Mart's have taken hold in the consumer products and retail arenas, and Pepsi and P&G are no exception.

But IBM brings a new value chain — electronics and IT — to the discussion and thus broadens the movement. Other electronics companies are also pressuring suppliers; the biggest players in the industry launched the Electronics Industry Code of Conduct (EICC) for suppliers in 2004, and members now include Apple, Cisco, Dell, Hitachi, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Sony, Xerox, and many more.

But IBM is helping expand the definition of a green IT supplier by upping the demands. To get a sense of what IBM is asking of its 28,000 first tier suppliers, I spoke with Wayne Balta, IBM's VP of corporate environmental affairs and product safety.

Balta described IBM's work as "just the latest step in a long-standing continuum." In 2004, the company launched its own IBM Supplier Conduct Principles, which helped define the EICC standards. Even earlier, in 1998, IBM asked suppliers to consider adopting the international green operating standards, ISO 14000. But the new announcement makes this "request" more of a mandate, and that's at the core of the new demands.

In short, IBM is asking for four things and telling suppliers they must:

1. Define and deploy an environmental management systems (EMS).

2. Measure existing environmental impacts and establish goals to improve performance.

3. Publicly disclose their metrics and results.

4. "Cascade" these requirements to any suppliers that are material to IBM's products.

The mandate for deploying an EMS helps suppliers build their own capacity to manage environmental issues. But most of the biggest suppliers already have some EMS in place, and that means they will have some metrics already. So I find the third and fourth elements even more important. These demands differentiate IBM's program from most of what's come before. They give heft to the requirements and expand their influence.

The third element makes companies publicly disclose their data — they don't just need to report their information to IBM; they need to make it clear for all to see. Transparency is a very powerful tool, and the new openness will benefit every customer of these suppliers. It will encourage improved performance like no other incentive (good, open data, drives competition and results in many ways - see my post Five Ways to Use Green Data to Make Money).

The fourth component, "cascading," means that IBM's requirements will ripple up the supply chain. Businesses will move a step closer to the holy grail of environmental measurement — knowing the footprint of every product without conducting a costly and time-consuming lifecycle analysis. In essence, if every link in the value chain tracks its footprint closely, and uses the tools of cost accounting to distribute these impact measurements across components, it becomes much easier for companies to estimate the value-chain impacts of their products.

IBM didn't undertake this initiative lightly. Balta explains that "we thought carefully about how we would feel about having these requirements ourselves from our customers." In essence, they're not asking anyone to do anything they have not already done themselves.

IBM execs know that the green path is a profitable one, so they're pushing suppliers to operate leaner, better, and smarter. As Balta says, "Our goal is not to punish people, but to have them succeed."

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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