Imagine if every time you went to the supermarket or big-box store (or shopped online) you could select your products based on sustainable sourcing, as well as the usual criteria. Imagine if a single rating system could tell you that one product was brought to you more sustainably than its closest competitor, with certification that workers had been paid a living wage, that packaging was recycled and recyclable, and that this product had not contributed to deforestation. Or better, imagine if you knew that all the products in that particular store had been pre-screened on the basis of sustainability.

Some retailers and their suppliers have challenged themselves to make that happen. Together with nonprofits, academics and government, they formed a coalition, named The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), to analyze the supply chains of consumer products and come up with a set of environmental and social metrics that will give consumers a clear picture of the products' backgrounds. TSC's goal is to drive change through supply chains so that "we can all experience the benefits of consumer products without causing harm to people or going beyond the environmental limits of our planet." The consortium, which is administered by two universities, figures it can measure and track the sustainability of $1 trillion worth of consumer goods in the next five years. Since production and use of consumer goods globally causes more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of tropical forest loss, and 80 percent of water usage, according to TSC, this will tip the scales and usher in a more sustainable world.

TSC says three steps are needed to drive change. The first is alignment: everyone needs to use a common platform to measure and track product sustainability. Next, manufacturers need to push their suppliers for transparency and continuous improvement, using the weight of their purchasing power. Third, partnerships can scale up efforts to improve supply chain sustainability and tackle large problems like deforestation.

TSC surveyed more than 1700 suppliers and found a lack of visibility in certain "hotspots" in the supply chain of various product categories. This allowed the consortium to zero in on these hotspots and look for ways to increase transparency and track progress. Often this means partnering with non-governmental organizations, such as for example the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, to work on particular hotspots.

In its recent report, called "Greening Global Supply Chains," TSC highlights hotspots in the chicken supply chain. These include environmental impacts from the management of soil, fertilizer, pesticides, water and energy to grow chicken feed. They include effects on air quality from chicken manure, and health issues for chickens stemming from improper animal welfare. Then there are the impacts of antibiotics, farm worker health and labor rights, and energy consumption during chicken housing and processing.

TSC is creating "product sustainability toolkits" for each product category. The consortium starts by defining the category and reviewing scientific sources on that particular supply chain. It then researches difficult hotspots in the life cycle of the product, and opportunities for improvement. It designs a set of key performance indicators and then works with stakeholders to produce a toolkit. The toolkits include guidelines on how buyers should assess suppliers, what they should ask for, and how to keep scorecards. TSC has partnered with software company SAP to be a part of the latter's Product Stewardship Network, which makes it possible for suppliers to respond on a single platform to many retailers on sustainability queries.

Armed with survey data and toolkits, TSC is bringing stakeholders together to implement solutions. One example is the TSC Cold-Water Wash Initiative. TSC estimates that 100 million US households with a washing machine are washing five loads of clothes per week, usually with hot or warm water. Washing with cold water could save 17,500 million kWh of carbon emissions per year. So TSC partnered with the American Cleaning Institute to set up common messaging for detergent and clothing companies to rally consumers around.

Mostly, though, we are still in a phase where we need more visibility in supply chains before we can start really effecting change. For example, the TSC survey showed that over 80 percent of respondents in textile manufacturing had data on the health and safety conditions of their own facilities, but only 60 percent had any data at all on their suppliers' operations. Getting more data will almost automatically provoke improvement of working conditions.

Some companies are starting to emerge as leaders in sustainable supply chain management and can act as role models for others. But in order to bring everyone on board, TSC needs to ensure it isn't just one among a number of metrics, scorecards and toolkits, with everyone moving ahead but in different directions. That's why TSC is making it its business to talk to anyone embarking on similar or related projects, such as CDP (the Carbon Disclosure Project), the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Product Environmental Footprint initiative led by the European Commission.

If everyone rows in the same direction, the boat just might cross the finish line.