Late in 2008, following Walmart Vice Chairman (now CEO) Mike Duke’s announcement that the company would improve the energy efficiency of its top 200 China-based suppliers by 20 percent by 2012, Walmart enlisted BSR to help launch its first supply chain energy-efficiency effort in China.

From my post in Walmart’s Shenzhen global procurement headquarters, I started by studying how the successes of Walmart’s U.S.-led Supplier Energy-Efficiency Project could be adapted to China’s unique environment. I then led a launch meeting, trainings, and the development of measurement tools to connect suppliers with energy-service companies.

In its first year, the program recorded an increase in efficiency by more than 5 percent in more than 100 factories, and revealed that suppliers had the capacity to do much more. That success emboldened Walmart to announce that it would eliminate 20 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) from its supply chain—nearly half the collective annual commitment of the nearly 200 companies in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Leaders program. That’s progress as far as sustainability is concerned, but it’s also good business sense: Walmart, a relentless cost-saver, sees it as a way to make suppliers leaner, more resilient, and more competitive.

It’s time for more companies to follow Walmart’s lead. By expanding energy-efficiency efforts into their supply chains, companies can quickly decrease supplier costs, substantially reduce greenhouse gasses, produce satisfyingly quantifiable results, and provide a gateway for further sustainability initiatives. There’s never been a better time to start: With the long-awaited GHG Protocol guidance on “scope 3” GHG accounting scheduled for release in December, an era of more comprehensive supply chain reporting is imminent.

Companies whose supply chains lead to China should start there, because the opportunity is profound. On average, Chinese factories use about 11 times as much energy as their counterparts in Japan. By cutting energy waste in China—which is the world’s top emitter of GHGs—it’s possible to reduce the world’s energy demand by 5 percent.

Fortunately, energy-efficiency investments in China are cost-effective compared with similar initiatives in industrialized countries. In spite of this, improved energy efficiency has not taken off in China because the country suffers from an inefficient market. Factory managers and other energy users often don’t have meaningful diagnostics about the price of energy, government subsidies make it cheap to waste energy, energy-management contracts are hard to implement, and people in positions to improve efficiency—building owners, investors, and tenants—often aren’t the ones paying the bills.

The problem is vivid when considering that neighboring Hong Kong, one of the world’s most energy-efficient regions, has a thriving industry of energy-service companies (known as “ESCOs”) that identify energy-saving opportunities and then install and locate funding for energy-saving equipment.

On the bright side, this shows that the challenge for companies is not one of engineering, equipment, or even finance. Instead, it’s about taking pieces of the puzzle that are already there and putting them together. For these reasons, China is one of the best places for companies to start scaling up knowledge about climate-related supply chain risks and opportunities, communicating results to investors, and improving climate performance by leveraging business networks.

The job of international companies in supply chain energy efficiency is to keep China’s specific challenges in mind and build bridges between ESCOs and suppliers. What follows is a series of steps based on my recent experiences working with Walmart that can help companies effectively engage suppliers in China on energy efficiency:

  1. Establish common ground. Often in China, suppliers see a focus on efficiency as a distraction from growth, and by extension they can be skeptical about consulting services and the value of pursuing savings versus top-line sales. Such suppliers may agree to participate in a company’s program but are unlikely to make significant progress over time until their culture rewards enhanced managerial productivity in general. Therefore, companies should begin their engagements on efficiency by surveying suppliers’ views about continuous improvement broadly and then educating them on that subject early and often.
  2. Show the road map. When it comes to labor compliance, companies like Nike have famously warned that demanding conformity on its own is not likely to yield sustained and honest results. On the other hand, sustainability initiatives are likely to take hold only if the specific action requirements include goals, timelines, and rules that are made clear at the outset.

    Ensuring that suppliers head in the right direction means showing them clear pathways, with options, in a road map. This was confirmed at Walmart’s first launch meeting, where suppliers and ESCOs agreed that Walmart’s 20 percent goal, five-year timeline, and detailed participation guidelines enabled the suppliers to get traction.

    Sharing the road map with suppliers is also a good way to make action seem urgent, which is a strong additional motivator. Finally, providing a road map is a good way to encourage suppliers—which may be reticent to make long-term commitments without good prospects for continued business—that the program is meant to drive long-term collaboration.
  3. Require accountability. Just like with sustainability efforts more broadly, suppliers are best positioned for progress when senior management sponsors the initiative, and then teams are instituted to execute objectives with clear roles, responsibilities, and substantial performance consequences. The Walmart launch meetings included both operations managers and senior leaders, and we emphasized to executives the ease and benefits of participation.

    Another ingredient for accountability is open communication between suppliers and companies. On one level, companies should review suppliers’ progress frequently (ideally quarterly) to ensure continued momentum. On another level, companies should make a help line available to quickly answer suppliers’ questions. Companies should also pay close attention to demonstrated commitments to management systems like the designation of teams and action plans related to improvement. These programs can predict whether the supplier will succeed.
  4. Build capability. Next, companies should integrate into their programs efforts to help suppliers understand where and how to focus tactics. This includes teaching factories how to identify low-hanging fruit, and understanding expected inefficiency hot spots and challenges to implementation.

    According to surveys we have conducted during BSR’s China Training Institute events, operations managers consistently identify training as the top need in successfully starting energy-efficiency programs. Many don’t have a strong energy or efficiency background, in part due to the prevailing focus on growth, so providing insight and resources through trainings, call-in lines, and diagnostic tools are often critical resources.
  5. Solve the problem itself. A final step is for suppliers to identify and deploy efficiency solutions, such as retrofits like better lighting and cooling systems, by tapping into the ESCO industry. However, many ESCOs aren’t arranging deals in China because the lack of infrastructure makes energy savings difficult to verify, and contracts can be hard to enforce. Companies can help efficiency projects take hold by making the cost of doing business easier for ESCOs. For example, companies can host forums gathering both ESCOs and suppliers, and inform them of possible opportunities by sharing statistics and needs revealed in the suppliers’ reports.