Kevin Brady explores what makes a sustainable product?

Kevin Brady sustainable product

What makes a sustainable product? This is a question that many companies, consumers and governments are asking, and it is also the focus of a sustainability course I teach at the School of Industrial Design at Carleton University. In that class the first assignment requires the students to analyse a product that is promoting its sustainability attributes. The task is to compare the brand owner or manufacturer’s performance claim(s) against the available literature on the impacts of the product system.  When the students report on their findings they note a wide range of approaches and attributes being used by companies to promote their products as “sustainable”.  Some products are promoted based on their superior performance to competing products in life cycle assessment (LCA) studies. Others companies communicate their efforts to ensure responsible labour, community and worker health and safety practices throughout their product’s supply chain. Some document how their products are designed with careful attention to material selection, manufacturing processes used, logistics optimization and packaging choices.  A few claim that they make a contribution to sustainable development through philanthropic efforts and product give-aways. Others focus in on single attributes such as the product’s carbon footprint, recycled content, and water or energy efficiency.

Students are like many consumers who do not take, or have, the time to understand the overwhelming number of certification schemes.

I would say overall the students find the claims match the product impacts about 15 to 20 percent of the time. This is not an impressive result and typically (but not always) it occurs when the product manufacturer/brand owner is adhering to comprehensive, stakeholder driven standards and/or third party labels and certification schemes. However, when I ask the students if they ever purchase products based on such schemes very few hands are raised. In part, this is because there is an overwhelming number of certification schemes and associated labels in play. In addition students are like many consumers who do not take, or have, the time to understand these schemes and labels. This has not hampered the growth of such schemes as there are an increasing number that incorporate either specific or multi-attribute environmental and social criteria. Well known examples include Forest Stewardship Council, Fairtrade, Marine Stewardship Council and Cradle2Cradle.

Some companies, particularly in the building and construction sector, also produce environmental product declarations (covering major life cycle impacts and other environmental data) and also health product declarations (providing ingredient/chemicals focused information).  These declarations are quite detailed and more business to business focused. Other companies have developed their own individualized approach (often with stakeholder input) for evaluating and improving sustainability performance. These company approaches are tailored to their product portfolio and some of the many examples of company led initiatives include Johnson and Johnson’s Earthwards® process, 3M’s Life Cycle Management approach, SC Johnson’s Greenlist process and BASF’s SEE Balance.

Collaborative Initiatives

In addition to what is currently available, there are a variety of collaborative efforts to further define how we should measure the sustainability attributes of products. Many of these efforts are driven by the desire to consistently measure sustainability performance in order to; facilitate the comparison of the sustainability performance of products; support purchasing choices, and drive a competition to improve.  The European Union is currently undertaking a major initiative to define, test and refine the best methodology for measuring the environmental footprint of a product (PEF) and the organisations that produce them (OEF). Organisations such as the Natural Step have developed sustainability life cycle assessment methods that incorporate more information than traditional life cycle assessments.  The Sustainability Consortium is a collaborative initiative working on measurement and reporting tools to advance sustainability of products.  Industry groups such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition have developed a suite of tools(the Higg Index)  to measure different aspects of sustainability performance including a forthcoming product foot printing tool. One of the more recent efforts is the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative’s work to develop a hot spot analysis methodology to help organisations prioritise areas for action needed to improve the sustainability of a product category.

My Thoughts on Attributes

My own perspective, based my involvement in the ISO LCA standards development process, my participation in hundreds of consulting projects to examine and improve the sustainability of products and my need to teach designers about sustainability, is there is no one size fits all approach to measuring performance. Common criteria such as recycled content, carbon footprint, renewable energy use, while often directionally correct can be misleading if the full system and a wide range of product attributes are not included in the evaluation. Each product system has to be examined in some depth in order to determine the best improvement options.  But as noted most people do not have the time so what I try to do is to help the students think differently about products.

A high level set of attributes needs to be considered when evaluating the sustainability performance of products…I think of this as a “checklist”

What we discuss in class is a high level set of attributes that one needs to consider when evaluating the sustainability performance of products.  I think of this as a “checklist” of attributes design students, designers and product development teams can use as a set of prompts or questions in the early stages of the design process to ensure that a comprehensive view of the product is considered. The “checklist” can also be used by consumers, purchasing professionals and other stakeholders, to evaluate whether a product manufacturer is addressing the full range of attributes needed to make a credible statement on the relative sustainability performance of their product. Admittedly this second application of the checklist is more difficult as it requires a lot of data transparency from the product manufacturer/brand owner.

I am not a fan of using the word sustainable to describe a product, as such a product is rare.

I should also note here that I am not a fan of using the word sustainable to describe a product, as such a product is rare.  This is because almost all products have impacts and hopefully benefits. Even the tomatoes from my garden, which are ultra-local, organic, require no transportation, and are delicious, require some inputs (seeds, water) and have an impact on the soil that eventually requires the addition of organic material.  So when we talk about sustainability it is better to use it as a relative term that compares the environmental, social, technical and cost aspects of a product to; a previous generation, a competitor, or an idealised or aspirational baseline or standard.

The Draft Checklist

The attributes outlined below should be considered complementary to classic and more detailed eco-design and sustainable strategies (e.g. upfront consideration of sustainability in concept/ideation stage, multi-functionality, optimizing production/logistics/end-of-life etc.) as defined by Han Brezit, Martin Charter and many others.

Resource Base – the materials used in products come from a resource base and the way those resources are managed/conserved/protected is a major contributor to the overall sustainability profile of a product.  It is important to carefully consider the type of resource as the main sustainability issues can vary. For wood fiber recycling is important but the management of the trees, land and soils to ensure soil preservation, reforestation and habitat conservation are critical. Wood however is different from metals which require not only good mining practices but more importantly (because of their fundamental properties) a focus on the management and availability of the resource across the full life cycle to ensure continual recovery, reuse and recycling.  Similarly lastics, biomaterials, nano-particles and other materials also have their own unique sustainability considerations.  One needs to ask what is the nature of the resource base is, and are the right sustainability aspects being considered and addressed in material selection. Another important consideration here is natural capital, and whether we drawing down on that capital too quickly or in ways that impinge upon future generations’ ability to have access to the resource.

Life cycle impacts and benefits – typically this involves quantifying a select group of impact categories and resource flows across the entire product system. With the advent of the ISO standards on life cycle assessment a lot of data, tools and processes have been developed to measure the life cycle impacts. Experience shows that this tool is best for understanding globally significant impacts such as the contribution of the product system to climate change (through the release of greenhouse gases across the system) and readily quantifiable resource flows such as the amount of renewable and non-renewable primary energy consumed across the system or the amount of waste generated.  It is very important to examine the life cycle impacts, particularly for climate change, but it is also important to recognize that a life cycle assessment study does not tell the full sustainability story.

Hazardous substances and potential human and ecological risks. Ideally this involves the elimination of the use of hazardous substances at the design stage but currently many product systems (e.g., batteries, circuit boards, and compact fluorescent light bulbs) do incorporate hazardous or potentially hazardous substances. For these products it is important to understand how possible worker or consumer exposure to these substances is being managed and also how any potential releases of these substances to the environment are being managed.  Are the hazardous substances recovered safely is a key question.

Socio-economic factors incorporate a wide range of issues along the value chain of the product. This might include treatment of workers and other labour issues in upstream resource industries, fair allocation of revenues and profits with supply chain partners, or avoidance of the use of child labour or conflict minerals.  The important aspect here is to determine if the key social, and economic, impacts and benefits are understood, and whether appropriate standards are being met. Sometimes these standards are in a codes of conduct or ILO standards and sometimes they are contained in third-party certification schemes.  Like life cycle impacts socio-economic attributes should be evaluated across the full product system from resource extraction through to production use and next life (sometimes called end of life but that term is a misnomer).

Total cost of ownership and lifecycle costs are two attributes that are not often considered in the price of a product. Total cost of ownership is about the true cost to the purchaser of owning the product taking into consideration a thorough range of cost categories such a waste disposal, product loss, worker health and safety, protective equipment requirements and many others. Life cycle costs here are about the true cost of the often unpriced externalities (emissions) and free resources (air and sometimes water) that benefit the product system but that are a cost to society in one form or another.

Technical performance addresses the standard type of criteria that are often considered when evaluation a product such as is it fit for purpose and does it meet needed quality standards. In the context of sustainability technical performance also includes circularity (is the product designed to encourage reuse, recycling and remanufacturing or in the case of biological material ultimate return to the earth).  Issues such as aesthetics and obsolesce can also be important considerations.

Additional Considerations and Challenges

Of course these are not the only attributes of importance. For some product categories one can add the notions of resilience (the ability to withstand and adapt to stress), restoration (the ability to make a positive contribution by repairing damage) and risk management (in this context the ability to manage an inherent risk to realise a sustainability benefit).

An ongoing challenge is providing designers access to the information they need to make design choices in a manner that respects the complexity and uncertainty of the underlying data associated with many products. In some cases this is getting much easier. Understanding life cycle impacts has improved dramatically since I first worked on life cycle data in the 1990s. Today companies can access a growing industry of life cycle consultants, government agencies and NGOs to help them understand the life cycle impacts of their products. This is supported by a myriad of software tools and data bases. As noted above, there are also many systems and certification schemes that provide information about resources, and more are coming online (for an interesting recent and full value chain example see the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative).

Social life cycle assessment impacts and benefits of products are generally less well developed, and in many cases not as integrated into design processes as environmental data.

Social life cycle assessment guidelines have also been developed, but when it comes to attributes like socio-economic impacts and benefits of products the data and tools are generally less well developed, and in many cases not as integrated into design processes as environmental data. For example 3D computer assisted design (CAD) software such as Solidworks has had life cycle data built into for a number of years that can give information on the footprint of materials, which is helpful but it is only provides part of the sustainability story of a product.

Also missing from many analytical tools and measurement frameworks is an understanding of whether using the material enhances the circularity of the product, imparts durability, reduces total cost or improves its social profile. As far as I am aware there is no such tool is available although the aforementioned SEE Balance from BASF is an example of a tool that incorporates comprehensive social, economic and environmental data. So perhaps it is more realistic to think about accessing a suite of tools that can collectively provide the full set of information needed to fairly evaluate the sustainability performance of product systems. To my mind this is a better approach than trying to load up existing tools such as life cycle assessment with data that is not really suitable.

If you have any comments on the ideas in this article or thoughts on what a comprehensive sustainable product profile should encompass please comment or contact me directly.
Kevin Brady is a management consultant and author whose work and writings focus on improving the sustainability performance of organisations and products. He was a founding partner of Five Winds International and is now director of Sustainable Enterprise Consulting. Kevin has been a guest speaker to a sold out crowd at TSSS twice in the past, enjoy the event summaries of his past talks.