Skeptics may say the world of business takes innovative concepts and turns them into consultant reports, studies, white papers and other tools that produce cookie-cutter initiatives.
But there's another side to this. Many innovative concepts would have limited impact if they weren't translated for a wider business audience. And there's no reason why the resulting initiatives can't retain the original innovation.
Consider the case of sustainability. Some have questioned whether this relatively young movement will prove sustainable, especially in light of some early missteps. But it increasingly appears that yes, this concept is here for the long term.
How can we be sure? Because youthful passion is giving way to seasoned strategy. New tools are being introduced that will help trading partners collaborate on sustainability and speak a common language. These are the kinds of tools the food industry has embraced successfully for other initiatives. All of this was discussed at this month's FMI/GMA Sustainability Summit in Arlington, Va., and reported on by Michael Garry, SN technology editor.
One such new tool was recently launched by FMI in the form of a report called “Sustainability on the Shelves: A Guide for Category Managers.”  This document aims to educate category managers and buyers, so, as you'd expect, it includes an overview, information resources, an appendix and other information. But perhaps the biggest value lies in the guides to five individual categories: grocery, general merchandise, beverage, fresh and seafood. These deeper dives shed light on issues specific to these segments and introduce questions that retailers can ask suppliers. For example, in the grocery segment, questions include, “What product ecolabels do you use?” and, “How do you monitor and enforce equitable labor standards?” These are helpful for launching into more sophisticated discussions.
While the FMI tool helps enhance trading partner dialogue, another soon-to-be-unveiled tool focuses on standardizing the language of that dialogue.
The Global Packaging Project aims to establish a common industry language for packaging and sustainability. This initiative, developed under the auspices of the Consumer Goods Forum, Paris, plans to produce a guidance document  in the first quarter of 2011. It is expected to include a suggested set of common definitions, metrics and principles for packaging.
These latest industry tools and initiatives build on earlier efforts to help educate, clarify and communicate. There's at least one aspect of communication, however, that still needs work: making consumers aware of industry sustainability efforts.
A surprising report last month from The Hartman Group found that despite all the advances and publicity around sustainability, only 21% of consumers could identify a sustainable product, and only 12% could point to companies associated with sustainability.
These results are humbling because industry leaders probably felt they were getting credit for doing the right things. Whatever the reasons for this disconnect, retailers and suppliers will need to find solutions in order to build on all the positive momentum.
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