How To Address “Green Washing” Your Supply Chain With ISO 14001

In this month’s issue of Member’s Edge (published by ISM-The Institute For Supply Management), a survey study entitled “How Important Is A Green Supply Chain In North America?” was featured.   This study was conducted as a joint effort between and Virescent, a UK based consulting firm.  Hundreds of supply chain professionals were interviewed about their current and future practices regarding green supply chains.  The study produced three key findings.

First, in North America, senior management does back “greening” the supply chain.  27% strongly agreed and 28% somewhat agreed that senior management views these practices as strategically important.  Roughly the same statistical numbers were true regarding a question that at least one executive in their own company is now responsible for “green initiatives”.

Secondly, green supply management is now being pushed down into purchasing operations.  Over 57% of the purchasers interviewed said they were already involved in “greening” their organization’s supply chain; and moreover, this number is expected to reach about 75% in the future.  This number seemed to surprise the UK firm who conducted the survey because they noted that in Europe more government regulations are in place to reduce carbon emissions, where in North America this level of regulation is not yet government imposed.

None of this data revealed anything new to us, as we see this everyday in our QMS work with clients.  However, the third and final study outcome frames many of our recent articles on corporate sustainability and the case for ISO 14001 certification.  The final take away from this study is that green suppliers are preferred, but measurement systems are lacking.  This has opened the door for a practice (and a term that is now used more liberally in supply management) called “green washing”.  When a supplier green washes they exaggerate claims about their environmental initiatives and metrics.

Over 80% of the supply chain professionals that responded said they would favor suppliers with green business practices, but only 25% have any sort of carbon footprint evaluation process in place.  Therefore, it’s hard for many purchasers to know if they are being green washed by suppliers about their environmental claims.  The consulting firm who helped conduct the study focuses on carbon footprint analysis and other “greening” strategies.

The reality is that for both suppliers and corporations there is an internationally accepted system that can provide a legitimate framework to document environmental claims and practices.  That system is ISO 14001, the environmental management standard.  ISO 14001 certification addresses virtually all of these areas.  If a company frames their QMS scope and documentation properly, they can voluntarily address environmental targets, goals and metrics.

Carbon footprinting is only one aspect of greening the supply chain.  Corporate sustainability, social responsibility, cradle to grave product life cycle analysis and documenting other industry specific environmental targets are all factors in demonstrating leadership as a green supplier.  These can all be addressed within the framework of ISO 14001 certification.

Specific tools (like ISO 14001) that could be used to achieve the 3 primary outcomes outlined in the survey were not mentioned as part of the study findings.  This is where the struggle continues.   Just as a suppliers may green wash their capabilities to purchasers, there are many organizations and consultants who green wash the processes that can help companies implement strategies, plans and systems.

Avoid “green certifications” and look to ISO 14001 as the legitimate first step in becoming a green organization and a better environmental steward.  ISO 14001 is an audited system which aligns well with TL 9000, the telecom quality management system, as well as ISO 9001.

Need some proof?  Here’s another big brand that chose to address all of these areas, including corporate social responsibility within the framework of ISO 14001: Adidas.  Adidas has pledged to reduce carbon emissions from its locations by 30 per cent by 2015.  It also aims to cut energy consumption by 20 per cent.  A key element in their corporate strategy—certification to ISO 14001 in five of their North American sites.  Congratulations to Adidas!  Here’s the announcement and an article on their sustainability goals.

So, don’t green wash or get green washed.  Implement ISO 14001 requirements with your suppliers and within your own organization, to become better environmental stewards while meeting the challenging demands of greening your supply chain.  You’ll get the data and verification you need from your suppliers which will help you meet your own measurement requirements. For more information on ISO 14001 implementation, contact us at