Product, Service & Design Innovation
Hitting the Bull’s-Eye With Your Product Sustainability Program

It can be daunting to ramp up a sustainability program. This is especially the case when moving from an operations focus, where most programs start, to successfully leveraging the many opportunities associated with product materials and sourcing, design, and production. Yet companies that take aim at their products and measure, improve, and communicate the environmental and social attributes across the life cycle are able to achieve significant improvements that dwarf those they could realize otherwise.

Companies following product sustainability best practices are gaining benefits that include reduced costs, improved employee engagement and productivity, and increased consumer trust and brand enhancement. What are these best practices and how can companies get started developing product-focused programs?

New self-assessment tool available

A new self-assessment tool, launched in February 2015, is available online to help companies hit the bull’s-eye with their product sustainability programs by learning from leading companies’ best practices. The free tool quickly takes respondents through nine short questions to determine where they are on the spectrum from just getting started on product sustainability to using proven best practices.

Companies developing or upgrading their product sustainability strategies can check their goals and initiatives against those of the leaders and obtain inspiration to build on their success. Developed by consultancy Pure Strategies, each question includes guidance on how to address improvement opportunities using market leader case studies

A focus on core elements of product sustainability programs

Successful product sustainability programs encompass key practices in strategy, assessment, and integration, the three areas covered in the survey. As strategy is often a program’s foundational framework, those seeking to set their programs up for success would benefit from leveraging proven approaches such as those that follow.

Leadership support. Companies may have critical support from management for product sustainability efforts, but not yet be actively engaging the leadership team. Seventh Generation includes managers in planning summits to define sustainability goals and strategies and gain organizational alignment and buy-in. The leadership team then expects broad company support for these efforts and links 20% of each employee’s annual incentive to sustainability.

Linkage to core business. Having goals is a standard practice and is critical in all sustainability initiatives; however, leading product sustainability programs have goals that connect sustainability to the core of the business to quickly build interest, accountability, and, as a result, significant momentum. Colgate-Palmolive achieved this with a goal to “increase the sustainability profile in all new products and in the balance of our portfolio” by the end of 2015. This goal required the rapid integration of sustainability into the product development process and the business teams. With this cross-functional alignment, Colgate-Palmolive has been advancing toward this goal and improving sustainability across new products and its portfolio.

Focused efforts. With so many sustainability drivers and needs, alignment on top priorities is another key feature of successful programs. Leaders invest in understanding the critical issues in their products’ life cycle and typically prioritize just four to six areas to focus on to gain clarity and meaningful progress. When Radio Flyer kicked-off their sustainability program, they utilized life cycle assessment and chemical analysis to evaluate their top products and identify key issues. The company then built its product program on four focus areas to address sustainable materials (e.g., recycled and renewable content, chemicals of concern), environmental footprint, social compliance, and end-of-life/durability. These priorities have helped product developers and suppliers focus on key areas for improvement.

Retailers, such as Walmart, are increasingly driving suppliers to invest in product sustainability. This and other marketplace pressures target the product supply chain where major hotspots are found, and thus where action is needed. As a result, companies are investing in product sustainability programs. Learning the best practices common across top performing companies from the Pure Strategies Self-Assessment tool for product sustainability programs can help guide efforts. With the target in sight, companies are more likely to hit the bull’s-eye and gain the greatest value from their product sustainability programs.

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