As organizations wade deeper into sustainability and look to strengthen ties across an ecosystem, a portal can serve as a valuable resource.

Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter

March 5, 2024

6 Min Read
Big data, wireless information flow. Data portal, open data system. Global cyberspace concept.
Siarhei Yurchanka via Alamy Stock

Managing sustainability is an incredibly complex task. It isn’t uncommon for a large company to find itself wading through millions of data points and tens of thousands of events spanning hundreds of suppliers. Gaining visibility across a supply chain and coordinating everyone and everything can quickly devolve into a time-consuming, expensive, and frustrating activity. 

As a result, some companies are now building sustainability portals, a.k.a. hubs, that allow them to communicate with their network of suppliers and buyers -- and coordinate efforts to reduce emissions and address other sustainability issues. These online spaces, which are already used by the likes of Walmart, PepsiCo and Schlumberger, typically serve as a nexus point for data, best practices, shared goals, vendor requirements, rewards and recognition, and more. 

“As organizations look to enhance supplier engagement and gain better visibility into an ecosystem, particularly for difficult to track Scope 3 emissions, a portal can serve as a valuable resource,” states Elfrun von Koeller, a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. “It can help a business communicate with suppliers and others in more uniform and efficient ways.” 

Indeed, portals promote transparency, seed knowledge sharing and facilitate mutual problem-solving. They typically boost compliance, and they can reduce supply chain disruptions and other risks related to climate change. No less important: Portals often demonstrate to the public and shareholders that a company is committed to sustainability. “A hub can streamline, simplify and improve many processes, observes Abhijit Sunil, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. 

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Making Connections Count 

What makes a sustainability hub so appealing is that it delivers benefits to participating businesses as well as the environment. A portal can help connect a sprawling supply chain along with complex and sometimes abstract sustainability objectives. By embedding sustainability deeper into business operations, it’s possible to promote collective action and shared value creation. It isn’t unusual for participating companies to trim costs, bump up innovation and even see improved revenues

“A sustainability hub establishes a business community that can deliver benefits for all the participants,” von Koeller points out. “All the information drives action and all the action drives innovation and results.” 

Walmart’s Project Gigaton demonstrates just how powerful the concept can be. The voluntary program, created in 2017, connects upwards of 5,900 suppliers mutually focused on key sustainability areas such as energy, waste, packaging, nature, transportation and package use. It aims to avoid one billion metric tons (a gigaton) of CO2 emissions from global value chains by 2030. In fiscal year 2024, more than 3,500 suppliers reported projects to Project Gigaton that will reduce, avoid, or sequester upwards of 250 million megatons of CO2

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The initiative, part of Walmart’s broader sustainability hub, focuses on reducing carbon output through science-based targets. Companies work mutually to cut waste, boost recycling, improve packaging, trim energy, and lower transportation costs. In addition to supplying Walmart with valuable data that helps shape its sustainability journey, it provides suppliers with tools to track and report on their progress. There also are online spaces for sharing expertise and best practices. For example, a Circular Connector space promotes best practices and vetted solutions for sustainable packaging. 

Recognition and awards are also part of the picture. One recognition category, Sparking Change, requires participants to set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time‐limited goals and share their emissions progress publicly. In fiscal year 2023, Walmart recognized more than 900 suppliers in this group. A second, more stringent status level, Giga Gurus, includes about 1,500 suppliers. 

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“Project Gigaton was created to democratize climate action and make it accessible for companies big and small alike,” says Chris Brooks, director of strategic initiatives and sustainability at Walmart. “We hear from suppliers all the time that Project Gigaton was the seed that started their company-wide sustainability journey. We expect the need for these tools and resources to continue to grow.” 

Dialing Down Emissions 

Other companies are following Walmart’s lead. PepsiCo, for example, has created Partners for Tomorrow, a platform that focuses on a wide array of sustainability strategies, including efficient packaging, regenerative agriculture, cleaner transportation and energy, and collaboration tools designed to educate, inform, and drive progress among supply chain partners, many of which are medium and small businesses. 

Meanwhile, global energy technology company Schlumberger has established a sustainability framework that incorporates a Supplier Innovation Program and other features that allow groups to share ideas, best practices, and technical expertise online and in the physical world. Schlumberger leaders regularly meet with groups of suppliers to discuss sustainability topics. They share ideas and solutions designed to accelerate emissions reduction -- and create mutual value. 

Forrester’s Sunil says that these hubs aren’t a substitute for internal efforts to cut back on carbon emissions; they are a natural extension of programs that connect companies in a broad value chain. In addition to incorporating software and technical data to track and manage mutual progress through dashboards and reporting, they provide a mechanism for enhanced interaction and communication. “It embeds greater intelligence into the sustainability network,” he says. 

Designing and building out a hub can prove challenging, however. It's critical to think through offerings and connection points carefully before rolling out a platform, von Koeller says. Not all suppliers -- particularly smaller ones -- have the sophistication level or resources to use a portal effectively. “You may have to work with some suppliers, particularly smaller ones, to get them up to speed and you may need to adjust your expectations because they aren’t capable of achieving certain standards or goals,” she explains. 

Designs on Sustainability 

When Walmart designed its Project Gigaton hub, for example, it had to consider a diverse supplier base, Brooks says. “We knew that reporting needs were going to be substantively different from supplier to supplier … our intent was to make Project Gigaton as actionable as possible so that any supplier, regardless of size or category, can use it to accelerate their sustainability efforts -- while we can gain critical insights from their reporting.” 

Boston Consulting Group’s von Koeller says that it’s vital to get suppliers fully on board, connect them to the vision, and ensure that they are dedicated to the program. In some cases, incentives -- including awards, certifications and recognition -- can help because participating firms can then tout their progress to others. CIOs and other tech and business leaders must also ensure that a portal or hub is easy to use, properly managed, and up to date and relevant. Someone or a group needs to take ownership of the portal and adopt a cross-functional focus. 

Make no mistake, a sustainability portal can accelerate the march to net-zero goals and unlock business innovation along the way. As companies across a supply chain work together to address sustainability issues more holistically, cost savings, efficiency gains, and innovation take root. Concludes Sunil: “When various members of a supply chain work together and share knowledge, everyone benefits.” 

About the Author(s)

Samuel Greengard

Contributing Reporter

Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology, and cybersecurity for numerous magazines and websites. He is author of the books "The Internet of Things" and "Virtual Reality" (MIT Press).

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