“We want all of our three billion products we sell every year to be well on the path to being truly sustainable by 2025.”
This is the ambitious target UK retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) has set for the long-term vision of its product sustainability. The company realizes — as increasingly do other global sustainability leaders — that it needs to continuously evolve to meet shifting consumer and societal expectations, increasing resource constraints, tightening government regulations and pending ‘social license to grow’ requirements.
To be sure, the journey to a fully sustainable product portfolio is long and complex. Developing products with a demonstrably positive or significantly lower social or environmental impact during sourcing, production, distribution, use and disposal presents a number of challenges. But often the biggest barrier is just knowing where to start.
Help Getting Going
To address this stumbling block, Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR) created a short guide on “Sustainable Customer Offerings,” one of nineteen company qualities it has identified as key to a sustainable future. The guide illustrates how transformational companies are reimaging business models and ensuring the environmental and social impacts of their products get the same attention as other factors during the design and creation process.
When their designers invent or renew a product, they ensure that its formula exhibits enhanced resource optimization — be it improved biodegradability, reduced water footprint, the use of renewable or responsibly-sourced raw materials, or greater energy efficiency. Innovation teams continually look for ways to improve packaging and to add beneficial social or environmental features to make their products not just less bad, but more good.
Addressing Hotspots Through Collaboration
This infographic depicts Marks & Spencer’s approach to sustainable product development taken from its sustainable products white paper. (“Plan A” refers to its sustainability vision and strategy, “because there is no Plan B”.)
The company conducts thorough reviews of its products and supply chains to zero in on social and environmental hotspots. This helps the company identify its key impacts so it can pinpoint where to focus its efforts.
M&S also engages stakeholders to understand their perspectives. Internal specialists collaborate with other consumer products companies and independent experts to ensure robust research and analysis.
Through this due diligence — hot spot analysis and risk assessments — companies such as M&S typically find a handful of big impact issues within each product category. These are prioritized for internal cross-functional collaboration and external engagement of suppliers and customers — the next step on the journey to improve a product’s sustainability impacts and features.
Where the challenges of flying solo are too great, developing or joining sector and cross-sector collaborations can drive improvements. Where whole-scale change is difficult, companies can pilot particular attributes with a small number of suppliers or customers to see if they can be successfully scaled.
Companies that come together — with industry peers, suppliers and specialists — to collaborate and innovate can generate product sustainability wins.
Sustainable Product Innovation Is Spreading
Consumer product companies are not alone in taking a holistic sustainable products approach and setting ambitious targets. LafargeHolcim, the global cement, concrete and aggregate company, has set a global target to generate one-third of its revenue from products and services with enhanced sustainability performance by 2030.
BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, has a 2020 target to increase the proportion of sales from its most sustainable products (which it calls “Accelerator” products) to 28 percent up from 26.6 percent. One of these Accelerator products is Elastocool® Advanced — an insulation material for refrigerators and freezers. It has a high level of resource efficiency along with enhanced insulation properties.
For products it classifies as “Challenged,” BASF develops action plans including research projects, reformulations or replacing one product with an alternative product. One example is poly-fluorinated substances, which don’t readily biodegrade, used in paper packaging coatings for its water and oil-resistant properties. In anticipation of stricter government regulations, BASF discontinued selling these substances. The new “Accelerator” product solutions contain chemical properties that prevent them from accumulating in the environment.
Making products a force for good — rather than simply going beyond less bad — will put business and society on a converging path with the ultimate destination: a more sustainable planet, economy and society. Because as Marks & Spencer has already pointed out, there is no Plan B.
Webinar for those who want to know more
For more information on how you can configure your products to be more sustainable and improve your product footprints, the Conference Board of Canada has put together the following webinar: Redefining Products and Brands to Make a Sustainable Impact.