Sustainability Blog
Something > Nothing: The Importance of a Circular Feedback Loop

Something > Nothing: The Importance of a Circular Feedback Loop

“All I really need is the word to be brought up.”

“If they aren’t talking about it, then it can’t be important to them.”

At WAP Sustainability, we work with manufacturers and brands to help them meet customers’ expectations on sustainability, many of which receive requests through The Sustainability Consortium (TSC). 

In the course of our work and discussions with suppliers of Walmart, we have recently been reminded that sustainability is still a small part of the total equation of doing business with the retail giant; and we noticed it becoming less and less of a factor as of late.

One of the world's iconic manufacturers of children's products told me that the reason they were not fulfilling Walmart's request for sustainability information through TSC is that they had just returned from Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters — and once again, the “S-word” never came up.

"No posters on the wall; not even the S-word on a piece of damn paper."

Even colleagues at TSC report challenges with getting Walmart to make the topic visible: "I had a prospective member who was interested in joining our organization and they felt the company could be doing more and wanted to be more engaged in the sustainability community. One trip to Bentonville made them realize this was no longer a priority and they didn’t become a member."

Even companies with Board Members on The Sustainability Consortium are questioning the lack of a nudge.

“It has to be about creating value and there isn’t any. No favorable purchasing terms, additional shelf space, end caps, promotions … If we miss a shipment or have a supply chain hiccup, none of this matters; none of this helps us in those situations."

Reflecting on a recent sustainability conference, I was reminded once again of the buzzwords, promises, stated goals, commitments, claims and so forth around the topics of sustainable purchasing and responsible sourcing; half of the exhibitors and sessions seemed to have something to do with one of these topics.

Yet one of the companies responsible for driving sustainability into organizations as a top 10 strategic priority back in 2008 has seemed to take a step back. Maybe it is the new leadership at Walmart; maybe it is the sustainability personnel at Walmart; maybe our clients are right and they aren't that serious, after all.

In 10+ years of discussing sustainable purchasing or responsible sourcing (whatever term you subscribe to), the single biggest opportunity — and the single biggest failure — is a lack of a feedback loop. The buyer-seller nexus cannot be influenced if we do not use our words.

We talked with Walmart’s Senior Director of Sustainability, Fred Bedore, about the feedback loop from Walmart to suppliers on their sustainability performance. He highlighted that Walmart engages with suppliers in multiple ways, including Joint Sustainability Meetings with the top 25-30 suppliers and through their Global Responsibility Report; overall about 1,800 suppliers representing 70 percent of Walmart’s sales respond to TSC’s KPIs.

However, the opportunity to make sustainability more visible in buyer meetings with merchants was confirmed as an opportunity for the retailer. Bedore recommended that suppliers bring up sustainability (the Index, packaging, efficiency or another sub-topic) with the buyer to help spur the conversation, highlighting that a reverse feedback loop with the buyer is an interesting approach that sometimes creates really good engagement and results.

As sustainability professionals and as a broader sustainability community, what is most concerning to me is that sustainability practitioners at manufacturers and brands spend significant internal capital to "get sustainability done.” Our colleagues cross internal and external lines, push the organization, manage data, respond to surveys and make the case for sustainability, and for what? 

"The word doesn't even come up when my biggest customer meets with me." 

And picking only on Walmart and TSC would be unfair.

The demand for a feedback loop expands beyond just Walmart. Just last month, 50 major building product manufacturers including Herman Miller, Milliken, Kohler and Allegion sent a joint letter authored by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) to architects and design professionals demanding a feedback loop on the sustainability performance of their companies and products.

In contrast, there are positive examples of good feedback loops. I want to compliment June Fisher from Kohl’s, who in my opinion had provided great feedback to Kohl’s suppliers: When responding to Kohl's Sustainability Survey, June would take the time to review the survey and schedule a call to review responses. She provided feedback and expressed interest in the responses our clients had worked so hard to generate. IKEA, too, does an exceptional job at providing feedback, digging deep into each data point, checking for errors or abnormalities.

For Walmart, feedback direct to 1,800 suppliers at 15 minutes each is a mere 450-hour task.

The moral of the story is, as sustainability practitioners, we have to activate the information we are collecting. We need not let our colleagues expel internal political capital trying to respond to our self-created surveys, only to set them up for failure by not having a feedback loop to show that anyone actually cares. I truly believe that “S-word” written in a room, on a Vendor Scorecard, or as a static topic on every buyer agenda is an easy first step to closing the feedback loop. We move forward by making sustainability visible.

As an action item, I'll even offer to create one of those motivational posters with the S-word on it, and maybe some pictures of solar panels, recycling bins, a Prius, or a windmill; Walmart, give me a call — I'll send you one for every buyer’s room.

Why your sustainability reporting must evolve with your company

Sustainability reporting trends

Sustainability is a trending topic and since 2010, a large number of American companies have started a sustainability reporting: according to the G&A Institute, the proportion of S&P 500 companies that issue a sustainability report rose from less than 20% in 2011 to more than 80% in 2015. How will this reporting trend evolve over time?

First, let’s get back to the basics: what should a relevant sustainability report contain? Frameworks such as GRI are here to guide you: they provide a large list of sustainability issues a company should deal with. In addition to these guidelines, a materiality analysis helps focus on topics that matter most to your company. But once you’ve set up your list of material issues and sustainability KPIs, for how long will this list be relevant: one year? two? five?


If we come back to the main reasons why companies have started their sustainability reporting, we can find the following ones:

  • Answering to rating agencies such as DJSI, CDP

  • Communicating with stakeholders (investor, clients, NGOs, employees, etc.)

  • Monitoring the company sustainability strategy

  • Complying with regulation

You may have noticed (and perhaps experienced yourself) that all these requirements change over time. Every year, rating agencies will add new questions either regarding new topics or for a more specific sectoral/regional approach. Stakeholders will request new information on sustainability issues and governments may add regulations on specific topics.

Sustainability reporting evolutions

If you haven’t changed your sustainability reporting in the past couple of years, here are some evolutions you may want to implement:

  • Sector specific indicators

  • Scope 3 GHG emissions

  • Supply chain assessments

  • Circular Economy

  • Protection of personal data

  • United Nation Sustainable Development Goals

More examples can be found in the sustainability trends for 2017 report from SustainAbility.

In addition to these new issues, you must consider your company’s own evolution: international expansion, the acquisition of another company or the launch of a new activity will probably raise new sustainability issues.

As a result, the more time passes, the less relevant your initial sustainability reporting will be, because it will miss a growing number of new sustainability topics faced by your organisation.

As sustainability issues for a company evolve over time, so should its reporting. Adjusting your sustainability reporting can become costly and time-consuming depending on the reporting tool you use. If your sustainability reporting tool is not flexible enough to support your reporting evolution, you may not be able to collect new categories of data. This in turn will affect your ability to manage new sustainability issues and to meet your stakeholders’ requests.

Sustainability reports: from checklist to management tool

Sustainability reports: from checklist to management tool

But does answering all these frameworks really enable companies to manage their sustainability issues?

A panel of experts at Edie’s conference in 2017 explained that “broad reporting frameworks have created a tick-box system for external gratification”. However, put together in one report don’t necessarily provide relevant information for the various types of stakeholders. According to them, reports that are created mainly to respond to GRI, SASB, CDP and other frameworks, “failed to truly present the benefits of firms’ sustainability actions”.

There is something here that I believe will resonate with many people doing sustainability reporting. When sustainability is not embedded in the general strategy of the company (i.e. when top management doesn’t lead the way), sustainability reports often look like checklists or an accumulation of information providing poor added value to a company (or its stakeholders).

In theory, the checklist system is supposed to simplify the reporting exercise and make all stakeholders happy. In reality, this is not always true. So far, I haven’t heard anyone say they love reporting and data collection. Long hours spent on data collection, validation, consolidation, and report creation can be gruelling.

Plus, you can imagine the frustration if this work results in a report that almost no one reads and/or uses. The company also risks frustrating its stakeholders if they can’t find the information that matters to them.

There is not one way to solve this issue but here are three best practices we recommend for our clients:

  • Perform a materiality analysis to identify what matters/impacts a company and its stakeholders (here is a white paper on the subject)
  • Analyze the data you collect, and use it to actually improve your company’s performance rather than just to communicate externally
  • Write audience-specific sustainability. It doesn’t necessarily mean sharing more information, but writing shorter reports focused on key audiences in a way that speaks to them.

It’s highly unlikely that a company will shift overnight from a checklist kind of report to performance, audience-oriented reports. Sustainability reporting is a journey and a dynamic process. However, there is a real added value for companies to start looking at sustainability reporting as an empowering process.  Companies like Tennaxia help companies combine technology and sustainability expertise to help you in your journey step by step.

Exhaustive checklists are good for grocery shopping, but not sufficient for sustainability strategy. Data should truly add value for stakeholders and the company.

*Republished with permission from Tennaxia

Written by Juliette Barre, Tennaxia

Christmas Tree Sustainability

Christmas Tree Sustainability

It is December, hard to believe I know, but the end of the year is among us.  Now that we are on the latter side of Thanksgiving, the Holidays are among us.  One of the most anticipated decisions this Holiday season involves your Christmas Tree.

A few years ago, we were part of the the first-ever ISO-compliant third-party peer reviewed life cycle analysis (LCA) of Christmas trees. The LCA sought to answer a number of questions, with the areas of most interest being what overall environmental impact Christmas trees have on environment, and if there is a significant different between real and artificial trees. The study was sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) a non-profit organization representing artificial Christmas tree retailers and real Christmas tree retailers, to clear up common misconceptions about the environmental impacts of Christmas trees.

The study found a surprising number of factors come into play in determining the environmental impact of Christmas trees.

The review compared the most common artificial Christmas tree sold in the United States to the most common real Christmas tree sold in the United States, and found that the choice of one tree over the other has a negligible impact on the environment. However, the study’s findings show that length of ownership, disposal method and “tree miles” can make a difference on which tree is environmentally preferable.

The study, reviewed by an independent third party panel, took into consideration five key environmental indicators to determine which tree type is environmentally preferable.

“There is a clear environmental break even point between the two trees,” said William Paddock, Managing Director of WAP Sustainability Consulting, a Nashville, Tennessee-based consulting firm that works with companies on corporate sustainability issues. “The debate gets a little more interesting when you look at different environmental indicators. Take for example the energy required to produce both trees. The energy required to make one artificial tree is roughly equal to the energy it takes to raise six real cut trees.”

Conscientious consumers need to consider factors such as length of ownership, disposal method and tree miles before choosing a type of tree.

ACTA encourages consumers to consider these five helpful tips when deciding which tree to buy this year:

  1. Purchase locally grown Christmas trees if possible.
  2. Consider “tree miles.” How far did the tree travel to get to your home? How far did you travel to get it?
  3. If you have purchased more than nine cut trees over the last nine years, consider purchasing an artificial tree to minimize your environmental impacts.
  4. If you own an artificial tree, make sure and keep it in use for at least six to nine years. If you plan to replace an artificial tree, donate it before you dispose of it.
  5. If you purchase a real tree, consult with your local waste authority about how to properly dispose of your tree.

“Our members have been urging consumers to choose the Christmas tree that best fits their lifestyle, be it real or artificial,” said Jami Warner, Executive Director of ACTA.

In some cases, purchasing an artificial tree turns out to be a more environmentally friendly option.

The study also highlights an “Eight Christmas Environmental Payback Period” between the two tree products based on the study’s five environmental indicators. The study found that the environmental impacts of one artificial tree used for more than eight Christmases is environmentally friendlier than purchasing eight or more real cut trees over eight years.

“As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to purchase an artificial tree, keep it in use for at least nine years,” Paddock said.

“ACTA encourages responsible consumerism,” said Warner. “Consumers should consider the impact on the environment for every item they purchase, not just Christmas trees.”

The Sustainability Skills Economy

The Sustainability Skills Economy

The sustainability job market has been very active for the past six months. Sustainability Leads average number of job posts each week has doubled in the latter half of 2017. While this is not hard science, it is a signal that the sustainability job market is healthy.

Perhaps this uptick in new jobs is that organizations feel added responsibility in response to political changes and have elected to hire, or turnover could just be higher in 2017. Regardless of the drivers, if you are a sustainability professional, now is as good of time as ever to dust of the resume and shop new jobs.

One aspect of the sustainability job market that seems forever consistent is the demand for sustainability skills. Almost every job description we pick up defines core skills, competencies, experiences that the employer is seeking. From soft and interpersonal skills, to hard technical skills, the sustainability job market is a “Skills Economy”.

PayScale conducted a Skills Economy Study, you can find the link here . In the study, PayScale highlights what it calls a 'Skills Gap'.

“We hear all the time about the ‘skills gap,’ the gap between the skills needed to succeed in the professional world and the skills with which young professionals leave college,” said Katie Bardaro, VP of Data Analytics, PayScale. “The data we’ve collected show that even though their education may make recent college graduates feel prepared to enter the workforce, only half of hiring managers agree with them; managers feel crucial skills in recent graduates are frequently lacking or absent.”

While the study talks significantly about the 'skills gap' between recent college graduates and employers, the 'skills gap' concept is relevant to the sustainability job market. Think about it, right now at COP23, sustainability leaders from JPMorgan and BlackRock, as well as representatives from Bank of America, the Coca-Cola Company and candy maker Mars Inc are advocating for climate change with world leaders in Germany. There is a skills gap in those sustainability leaders participating in COP23 in Bonn, and those sitting in Philadelphia at Sustainable Brands New Metrics. More on this later.

The skills gap can be boiled down to two distinct skill sets, Technical Skills & Personality Skills.

Technical skills are the knowledge and abilities needed to accomplish mathematical, engineering, scientific or computer-related duties, as well as other specific tasks relating to technology. For sustainability, these technical skills are those related to measuring and understanding carbon impacts of operations and product, understanding science based goals and methodologies, mastering material health, and forecasting unintended sustainability consequences of poor decision making. These are skills you can learn, be trained on, or become accredited within.

Personality Skills include Critical Thinking, Dependability, Flexibility, Interpersonal Skills and Motivation. For sustainability, these are the skills to inspire, convince, on-board, align, and mobilize a culture of “becoming different”. It is the ability to use influencing skills for good, to help enable the right decisions for people, planet and profit. These are skills that are acquired, refined through experience, improved through failures, and ignited with successes.

My comment earlier about the two types of sustainability leaders, those in Philly and those in Bonn, are related to my own observation in the two types of sustainability leaders in the market today. For those in Bonn, it is evident that those are leaders who have convinced their organizations that there is a role for their organization to play on the global scale. They have successfully made the business case for climate change, internal price of carbon, and meaningful goals that are science based and SDG aligned. Their success will most often be attributed to these leaders personality skills. With all humility, I’m not at Bonn, I haven’t convinced a company to go advocate for climate legislation on a global scale. I respect the hell out of those who are.

For those in Philly, perhaps we are still refining our skills, looking for tips and tricks for how to make our organization move in a more sustainable direction. Maybe we aren't there yet, and the 'skills gap' is a real thing.

GRI’s Tim Mohin wrote an article about the 9 skills for success in corporate sustainability leadership. The link can be found here. The list and article are a great summary and reminder of how sustainability requires a mix of technical and personality skills to succeed.  If your looking for a job, take this into consideration.

9 skills for success in corporate sustainability leadership

1. Be flexible like Gumby and curious like George

2. Hold on to your core competency while learning new skills
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

4. Lead through influence

5. Read the system

6. Learn and practice “corporate jujutsu”

7. Be entrepreneurial

8. Pay attention to detail, discipline, quality, and results

9. Above all, passion for the cause

The "Chain Liability Effect" in Recent Jobs

The "Chain Liability Effect" in Recent Jobs

October is always a dynamic and busy month for the sustainability industry.

Suppliers to Walmart receive their annual influx of emails kindly demanding each to complete an assigned number of Sustainability Consortium Product Sustainability Toolkits. These emails serve as a "gentle" nudge to manufacturers and brands, reminding each of the work they have or have not completed since the last survey.

Based on the number of registered companies at the time of this blog, 5,799 manufacturers and brands were logged on to SAP’s Product Sustainability Network answering one or more of the over 100+ surveys created by The Sustainability Consortium. All participating companies were also introduced for the first time to Walmart’s Project Gigaton Survey, which seeks to track organizations targets and goals relevant to the retailers' ambitious commitment to reducing a gigaton of GHG emissions from its supply chain.

In the building product industry, it is almost time for the U.S. Green Building Council's annual GreenBuild Conference. October means that Manufacturers are busy preparing relevant documents, releasing sustainability reports, new product transparency documents, and hurrying along product certifications to highlight at the conference. Just last week, the Health Product Declaration Collaborative announced a new third-party verification process intended to introduce some added quality and rigor to the material transparency program which houses over 2,700 different product specific HPDs.

With such activity, the month of October also brings a significant number of new job postings. Many of them driven by activities surrounding TSC, Walmart and GreenBuild. Here is a summary of jobs we posted over the last month with direct ties to these initiatives.

Supervisor Audit Sustainability Reporting & Quality Assurance - Hershey

Global Director of Sustainability - Bon Appetit

Product Sustainability Manager - Shaw Industries

Sustainability Specialist - Blommer Chocolate Company

Professor Sabine Benoit from The Surrey Business School's Department of Marketing and Retail Management sent me an interesting article that explains in part, why these jobs even exist. Her research highlights what is called “the chain liability effect”. As she explains, “when it becomes publicly known that products are associated with suppliers that engage in unsustainable behaviors, consumers protest, as Nestlé, Zara, and Kimberly Clark, among others, have learned. The phenomenon by which consumers hold firms responsible for the unsustainable behavior of their upstream partners suggests the notion of “chain liability.”

You can watch a short 3 minute video on the concept at this link.

The idea of “chain liability effect” is exactly what TSC is seeking to influence through many of its KPIs. Each manufacturer is scored based on its ability to provide evidence of enhanced responsibility in their supply chains. Similarly, the USGBC LEED rating system and Health Product Declarations are seeking to create enhanced responsibility of supply chains by promoting product transparency.  Specifically, with HPDs, it is expected that manufacturers control, disclose and then optimize the chemicals and ingredients, used by their suppliers, that are included in the manufacturers finished product. These programs are seeking to minimize the “chain liability effect" associated with poor control of supply chains.

The jobs from the four highlighted organizations are intended to manage this process of sustainability governance in the supply chain.

Outside of the Walmart and USGBC influence, Adobe and McDonald’s both posted interesting jobs this month that are designed to minimize the “chain liability effect” proactively.

Principal Campaign Marketing Manager – Sustainability & Social Impact - Adobe

Communications Supervisor, Brand Trust Strategy & Planning Team - Corporate Responsibility/Sustainability - McDonalds



Introducing New Ownership - WAP Sustainability

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As of October 3, 2017, Chattanooga, TN based WAP Sustainability Consulting became the new owners of

So, who is WAP Sustainability and why did we want to purchase Sustainability Leads?

WAP Sustainability is a 10-year-old sustainability consulting firm with offices in Chattanooga and Nashville. We specialize in helping sustainability leaders broaden and accelerate their efforts. Most of our work centers around technical tasks like GHG and Carbon Accounting, Life Cycle Assessment, Sustainability Reporting, Chemical Transparency, Environmental Product Declarations and Multi-Attribute Product Certifications. Our clients range from large publicly traded companies to manufacturers of building products and consumer packaged goods.

So, why purchase Sustainability Leads? The opportunity to purchase Sustainability Leads is a pure passion project for our firm. Our goal is to use the platform to advance knowledge of the sustainability job market, connect people with jobs and expand the conversation on sustainability leadership in new ways. Our team is constantly working with sustainability professionals who have unique stories on how they found their way into a sustainability role. We want to use this platform to tell real stories in our industry, by connecting the jobs we post with the candidate who actually got the job.  Overall, we want to build a community dedicated to the sustainability professional, something we think is missing in the industry.

I have personally followed the sustainability job market religiously, since becoming the first Sustainability Manager for Mars, Inc. over ten years ago.  Since then, I earned my MBA in Sustainability and was one of the first graduates in the country, and among the first three here in Tennessee. In addition to my role at WAP Sustainability, I teach graduate classes in Sustainable Business. I'm constantly seeking new knowledge about the job market, and incorporating those trends into my curriculum. I have intently watched the industry mature over the years by observing teams expand and shrink in size and identifying new critical skills depicted in job descriptions. My goal is to make sure my students have the sustainability skills they need to meet the needs of business.

Thanks for checking in and following our platform, we look forward to creating useful content for you to enjoy. If you have ideas that you think we would be interested in, we would love to hear from you.

-William Paddock, Managing Director, WAP Sustainability Consulting




ING and the CE100

ING and the CE100

ING stands for "International Netherlands Group" and their total assets amounted to 845 billion euros in 2016.  In June of that year, ING joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as Circular Economy 100 (CE100) member.