• ecoPortal attended LCM 2013 Conference

Perspectives of Managing Sustainability – Where are we at?

6th International Life Cycle Management (LCM) Conference – Göteborg, Sweden

Last week, I attended the 2013 International LCM Conference which takes place every two years. Globally it is one of the leading conferences on environmental sustainability and has previously taken place in Copenhagen (2001), in Barcelona (2005), Zürich (2007), Cape Town (2009) and Berlin (2011). Life Cycle Management (LCM) deals with environmental impacts at all life cycle stages of a product. Ideally, suppliers work together to minimise negative impacts on the environment and therefore significantly improve the sustainability performance of the final product. There are a number of tools around that support companies to do so, such as the implementation of environmental management systems (EMS), supplier evaluation, product stewardship schemes, or life cycle assessment (LCA). Successful implementation of LCM initiatives leads to for example financial benefits, better risk management and also competitive advantage.

Sweden is very well-known for its low population density, reindeers and the Volvo cars, but also for being at the forefront of sustainability initiatives. IKEA is particularly proactive when it comes to working with suppliers and encouraging them to improve their environmental performance. In day-to-day life you can also see that Swedes bring their shopping bags to the supermarkets, have campaigns to encourage the use of reusable coffee cups and they are leading in recycling. For example, 99% of the household waste is either recycled or used for energy production. Passive houses which reduce the amount of energy consumption are not rare in cities all over the country. Organic plays an important role to Swedish consumers, not only when it comes to food, but also cotton. H&M, for example, is the world’s largest user of organic cotton.  So clearly, Sweden was a good choice as a host-country for a conference with a sustainability focus.

Like a Swedish “smorgasbord”, the conference was a great mix of representatives from industry, academics from research institutes and universities, and governments and NGOs. Over the three days, there were about 40 sessions with almost 200 oral presentations and approximately 160 posters, as well as a range of other formats such as themed lunch sessions, Pecha Kucha, seminars, exhibitions, workshops and plenty of opportunities for social interactions.

The conference theme “Perspectives of managing life cycles” was represented through the numerous topics such as business strategy and LCM, the role of communication in LCM, application of LCM in environmental policy; but also more in-depth topics focusing particularly on chemical assessment, management of biotic and abiotic resources; data exchange, labelling, sustainable supply chain, and seafood and fisheries.

It became clear that for many companies the motto “sustainability is business and business is sustainability” is what is driving them to implement environmental initiatives, and also encourages them to work with their suppliers up and down the value chain to improve the environmental performance of the final product.  André Veneman from AkzoNobel highlighted that an important part of their sustainability journey is not only reducing environmental impacts in their own operations, but working WITH suppliers, to reduce impacts caused by transport, packaging and end of life treatment. For them, sustainability is key, a core part, and not an add-on. And AkzoNobel is not alone with that attitude. We heard from Nicole Unger, from Unilever, that they encourage suppliers to have labelled products by 2020, an ambitious but not unrealistic goal.

Teresa Fogelberg, the Deputy Chief Executive of GRI, talked about the recently launched G4, which plays an important role as the global trend moves towards disclosure and reporting.  For some companies reporting might be important to gain trust and increase transparency, for others it is a license to operate in a particular market, or to inform investors and to learn about the risks.

What I learned after three days of extensive discussion with experts on various sustainability and LCM issues is that industry, particularly in Europe, wants to improve their environmental performance. They see it as a huge chance to distinguish themselves from competitors and also to simply do the right thing. They, increasingly, ask their suppliers to start their sustainability journey too, and here we see that LCM is not only for large corporates that are in the public, but that LCM is something every company has to integrate into their strategy.

It sounds very complex, and companies represented at the conference clearly showed where they are at and where they want to go in the future. They are asking sustainability professionals and researchers to help them on that journey.

I see ecoPortal as a solution for many of the hurdles they are facing right now. Be it an efficient way of collecting and storing data, making data visible and understandable for internal and external stakeholders, being transparent and engaging departments from within the company. Moreover, it is a tool not only applicable for a specific industry sector, rather it can be adapted to suit the requirements of individual  companies in any sector. I seriously believe we are well on track for doing the right thing ourselves, and helping others, to do the right thing too.

I am already looking forward to the next LCM conference in Bordeaux, France, in 2015. (Not only because of the social events and the wine, but to see how much progress we can make in the next two years).