PPI Magazine

Sustainable product design: Why? What? How?

By Phil Riebel Mon, Nov 15, 2010

NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA, Nov. 15, 2010 (RISI) -There is a growing market for sustainable products. Paper and print buyers are increasingly evaluating the environmental and social performance of their products by using a variety of scorecards or product declarations such as EPAT, Paper Profile, the WWF Paper Scorecard, or their own customized ones (i.e. P&G, Walmart). Organizations like SAM, which ranks companies for the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and Global 100 both use a survey- and interview-based process to evaluate companies for overall sustainability based on financial, environmental and social engagement and performance.

Why not be a step ahead of the growing trend and design more sustainable products? Some companies with strong R&D and innovation strategies have been doing this for years. One of my favourite examples is from P&G who used product life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies to determine that washing with warm water detergent used a significant portion of home electricity. This led to the development of cold water detergent and a significant success by capturing the lion's share of that growing market. Sustainable product design leads to innovation and business opportunities.

No hard and fast rules

There is no hard and fast definition for a sustainable product but I have made an attempt at outlining below some of the key features. In very simple terms, I believe corporate sustainability is an ongoing journey where companies commit to operating within a framework of continual improvement in financial, social and environmental responsibility. So, a sustainable product should follow this general framework, and:

  • Be manufactured so that it is profitable but is also made by companies who respect global financial rules and systems (i.e. SOX) and are not being associated with fraud, corruption, etc...which vary widely from one country to the next. This would include suppliers as well.
  • Have a low environmental footprint over its life-cycle. As an example, the basic life cycle of a printed product is covered by raw material input for pulp and paper making (including forest management), manufacturing, transportation, printing, distribution and final disposal. Along this life-cycle there are emissions to air, water and soil, and there is use of energy, water and other resources. The evaluation of this environmental load and its impacts is what needs to be considered. Techniques such as life-cycle inventories (LCI) and life-cycle assessments (LCA) are used to quantify this environmental footprint.
  • Be manufactured in a socially responsible way, including the raw materials used to make the product. If a product has a low environmental footprint, but some of its raw materials are coming from operations where human rights are abused, then there is a problem. Some of the key social categories are:
  • Health and safety performance
  • Corporate citizenship /philanthropy
  • Labour practice indicators (ex: labour and human rights)
  • Human capital development (ex: human resource practices, non-discrimination / diversity, equal remuneration male/female, talent attraction & retention, layoffs)
  • Stakeholder impacts, needs of local communities and indigenous people

If you visualize the entire supply chain of a product, and its activities and impacts on society and the environment, the picture can be overwhelming. Nevertheless, that is the impact of products we use, whether it's a sheet of paper or a computer. In the case of paper and print, sustainability and environmental footprint goes much beyond single features like using recycled fiber, fiber from FSC certified forests and a low carbon footprint. Focusing on isolated parts of the product life-cycle tells us little about the total environmental footprint of the product, and even less about the sustainability of the product. A narrow view of environmental and social impacts can be misleading, and can even lead to results that are opposite of what we intend. Here are a few examples from my past, to illustrate my point:

  • An office paper grade being switched from Kraft fiber to a portion of recycled content and marketed as "green", but the carbon footprint of the product almost doubling due to fossil fuels used in energy production at the de-inking facility as opposed to the low carbon footprint of the Kraft mill where a high percentage of renewable biomass energy was used.
  • A paper company marketing paper as "green" due to FSC certification whilst the mill site uses chlorine gas bleaching (known to produce chlorinated organics such as dioxins in mill effluent)
  • Green labels given to several paper products containing recycled content when mill environmental performance (emissions to air, water, etc) is worse than modern mills using virgin fiber.
  • An FSC and recycled content grade made locally, with twice the carbon footprint of a similar wood-based grade coming from Scandinavia.

Life-cycle thinking is essential, and it should include the design stage of paper and print products since designers and product development teams have a great opportunity to reduce downstream paper and printing impacts by thinking sustainably.

Developing a scorecard

A pro-active approach could include the following: 1) engagement and education about sustainable product design and understanding how your products rank in sustainability or environmental scorecards / evaluations 2) adopting or developing a scorecard system to evaluate product sustainability; and 3) integrating sustainable design into existing and new product development. An internal scorecard can be adopted or customized to include impacts over the product life cycle for environmental and social indicators. By having a complete (but practical) scorecard, companies can prioritize improvements that will increase their ranking or scoring. The proper weighting of the various indicators is important and should be science-based. For example, environmental life-cycle assessment studies will often weight key impacts as follows in order of priority: 1) global warming 2) eco-toxicity 3) acidification 4) ozone depletion 5) carcinogens 6) particulates, and so on. Existing product declarations, scorecards and sustainability evaluations such as the ones mentioned above should be used to help identify the key categories to track along the product life cycle for paper and/or print. In the end a customized sustainability index can be developed, in the same way Walmart is designing one for the products they are buying.

The development of a sustainable product scorecard and the use of techniques like life-cycle inventory and life-cycle assessment requires engagement and resources but it will prove useful in improving product design.

Phil Riebel is a senior sustainability advisor to the forest, paper and print sector. He has over 20 years of international experience acquired in senior management positions in industry and consulting. He can be reached atphilriebel@bellaliant.net


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