New tool aims to clean up supply chain

Sponge Life Cycle

There you are, hunkered over your sink, hands wrist-deep in hot water, swiping suds over food-crusted dinner plates. That squishy, soapy thing that’s helping you do so many daily chores…ever wonder where its life began and where it will end?

That sponge, like everything on the planet, has a life cycle, composed of all the materials and energy that brought it to your sink and all the tasks it will help you complete until you’ve squeezed the last bit of work from it and tossed it into the trash.

The manufacturers of that sponge had to find a source of raw materials, develop machines to make it and package it, and transport it to a facility from which it was distributed to the retailer who sold it to you. Each of these steps – or links in the supply chain – uses a measurable amount of materials and energy. Consideration of the environmental impacts of all of the supply chain links is called life cycle assessment.

Life cycle assessment is a way of measuring the environmental impacts of a product or service, how it was made, whether there are toxic emissions and how much energy is used in its manufacture, use and disposal. And it’s a key focus of Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Minnesota. NiSE is a collaborative of practitioners and scholars focused on improving interdisciplinary understanding of sustainability challenges associated with global production and consumption systems and developing user-inspired research and decision tools to effectively act on them.

“It’s the cradle to grave of a product or service,” says NiSE research fellow Mo Li, whose work focuses on environmental life cycle assessment. “Much of our current work is focused on identifying the ‘hot spots,’ the inputs or manufacturing stages that have the highest impacts (greenhouse gas emissions, water depletion, etc), pinpointing where it can be reduced,” she says.

Li is the project manager of a team that is developing a tool to help large purchasers understand those hot spots in their supply networks.

“A purchasing manager buys hundreds of thousands of products every year. They are asked to vote with their dollar in accordance with company or stakeholder values,” says Tim Smith, NiSE’s director and an associate professor of the environmental sciences, policy and management graduate program in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “For example, they may have a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 20 million metric tons.”

So where do purchasers look for reductions?

Researchers from NiSE and the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, modeling experts at Climate Earth, and sustainability leaders from multinational companies are collaborating with the Global Environmental Management Initiative, a coalition of companies developing tools to create sustainable solutions for business, to develop the Supply Chain Sustainability Tool.

“The tool will let managers see where they can influence carbon emissions and water use in their supply chain,” says Smith. “It will allow purchasers to identify their high-impact purchases and prioritize new procurement strategies based on product design changes. For example, when sourcing paper packaging, the fiber can be virgin or recycled, sourced domestically or internationally, bleached or unbleached. The package design might be ‘light-weighted,’ an un-coated design might be substituted for a coated version, or bio-based inks might replace solvent-based ones. Each change of the product’s attributes has an influence on its emissions or water profile. These changes might also add costs. So the tool will let purchasers compare the cost-effectiveness of purchasing strategies across the spending portfolio, says Smith.

“With the tool, we’ll be able to look at trade-offs,” says Keith Miller, 3M’s environmental initiatives and sustainability manager and co-chair of the SCS Tool development project. “Products with higher greenhouse gas emissions can be offset by other products. We can go to something else that would require less of a certain ingredient, we can look at cost comparisons vs. environmental impacts. It’s really a procurement decision support tool. We’ve got to purchase something. The tool helps us look at alternatives to make an informed decision based on the environmental impacts of purchased goods.”

Miller says the tool is helping 3M evaluate various natural fibers for a line of sponges, comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of producing fiber from agave and coconut. Today, the tool can’t look downstream at what happens to a product after it outlives its use – tossed in the trash or recycled into something new – but with the GEMI team, Miller hopes it may someday be possible.

“Working on this project illustrates what can be done through collaboration. 3M would not have been able to do this alone. Just getting the funding together would have been a big enough task. Collaborating with thought leaders in private-public-academic sustainability partnership is what is making it happen.”