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The Future of Product Sustainability

May 10, 2012
How EHS professionals can explore and adopt sustainable product practices.

Say the word “sustainability” and you might be talking about any one of a number of broad topics: greenhouses gases and emissions, natural resource conservation, the social impact of companies’ business practices and much more. While these conversations are important, one specific area is particularly relevant to EHS professionals: product sustainability.

EHS professionals and end users alike may have

the following questions about product sustainability:

➤ What is in the products that I consume or use?

➤ Are there any health or safety concerns in the products that I purchase?

➤ What impact will the product have on the environment during use or when I dispose of it?

➤ What impact does the manufacturing of the product have on the environment?

This article discusses the need to adapt product sustainability into our mainstream thinking, as well as the considerations for EHS professionals to implement sustainable product practices.

What are Sustainable Products?

By definition, sustainable products limit their impact, today and in the future, on the environment, the workers who make the product and the consumers who use it throughout the product’s full commercial lifecycle. Some refer to this cycle as “cradle-to-cradle,” to account for the span from product conception to safe disposition or recovery such as re-use or recycling programs.

Currently, there is no one sustainability standard applied to all products. Most of today’s sustainability initiatives focus on a particular industry such as construction or the food and beverage industry. Just a few examples of current programs include: the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Rating System, Forest Stewardship Council Certified Wood, Certified Organic Product Labeling and Green Seal Product Standards.

The building products sector is one industry that has been in the forefront for sustainability practices. This largely is due to the volume of materials going into construction and the relative permanence of the end product. However, that industry is just one on the leading edge, and other industries from food and beverage to consumer goods to textiles to mining and minerals should prepare for product disclosure and transparency requirements to become mainstream product requirements.

What Customers Want

According to GreenBlue, a nonprofit that equips business with the science and resources to make products more sustainable, two trends in product sustainability for the next decade include product transparency and producer responsibility.1 They conclude that product transparency is nearing the tipping point, meaning that not only is the demand for safer, greener products rising, but also the pressure for companies to disclose what’s in their products so consumers can make more informed decisions. Furthermore, companies across the globe are starting to see more customers who have their own requirements for what type of raw materials they will accept, or more likely will not accept, in a product.

For example, the retail giant Wal-Mart is driving adoption of corporate sustainability programs. Wal-Mart’s goal is to put a measure of sustainability on the packaging of every product. This has the potential, based on Wal-Mart’s market force, to educate the average consumer about sustainability issues in a way that no government agency or company will ever be able to do. Consequently, as data starts to become more familiar to the average consumer, more companies will start to realize that sustainable product practices will soon be the generally accepted way of doing business.

Historically, the consumer market ultimately has driven companies, especially consumer products goods (CPG) companies, to do the right thing. Today’s emphasis by automakers to produce electric, hybrid and other highly energy efficient cars stems from the years of concern about foreign oil dependency and rising energy costs. Therefore, the right thing to do – not just economically, but for the environment – is to produce more efficient models with alternative energy sources. This movement arose from consumer backlash not only from the cost of gasoline, but also the desire to preserve and protect the world in which we live in.

The same movement is taking us toward product sustainability. In fact, I would argue that we will respond quicker because of the immediately personal impact that consumer goods can have on each of us every day. Our intimate use of consumer goods will drive the transparency revolution and cause both industrial and CPG companies to disclose more data about the health, safety and environmental impacts of the products that we choose each day.

Ultimately, we live in a world of consumer choice. That consumer choice will drive manufacturers to disclose a greater level of information about what is in the products we use and what the environmental and health impacts are. Similar to today’s food packaging requirements, imagine a scenario where every product, not just food, has a product sustainability label that quantifies and rates the product on its energy consumption, material composition, safety rating and environmental impact through its lifecycle.

Defining a Product Sustainability Approach

The first step into a product sustainability approach is to modify your organizational mindset from an “inside-out” perspective to an “outside-in” focus. A traditional approach to sustainability focuses on internal factors such as manufacturing and shipping, whereas a product sustainability approach has a broader, long-tail perspective.

Product sustainability also accounts for all of the materials and ingredients entering into your product, process and facility. Manufacturers also must understand the material constituents of the components procured from vendors, as well as their own materials. On the other end of the supply chain – the demand side – companies must consider the use and disposal of the product at both distribution points and end consumers. Specifically, organizations must understand what can be re-used, what can be recycled and what can be recovered. Simply stated, companies must look at the end-to-end approach and consider the impact of their entire supply chain, not just within the four walls of their own company.

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of

Massachusetts Lowell has developed a framework2 for evaluating the

environmental, health, and safety performance of your product portfolio. The framework identifies five questions to evaluate a product’s sustainability profile:

1. Is the product healthy for consumers?

2. Does the production benefit localcommunities?

3. Is the production process safe forworkers?

4. Is the product environmentally sound?

5. Is the product economically viable?

Within each of these questions lies the specific criteria and details necessary for evaluation. For example, in the first question regarding consumer safety, the framework further asks if the product avoids chemicals that contain carcinogenic, mutagenic and other endocrine, reproductive and nervous system contaminants.

Additionally, there are criteria to assess the flammability, explosiveness and corrosive characteristics of the product both in production and in consumer use. A complete description of the framework can be found online at

As you can imagine, the approaches to implementing such a program can vary and the spectrum runs from simple questionnaires for your vendors/suppliers to full product lifecycle assessments (LCA). The role of EHS is to know the details of your product – not just the end result, but the detailed formulation of substances in and in use during the manufacture of the product.

Having an electronic chemical management system will help with this, as well as material safety data sheet (MSDS) authoring systems that can assist in the review, classification and regulatory cross-referencing of the products that you distribute. Since all of the material and component information is available on an MSDS, management systems can monitor and review changes to material formulations or properties, as well as updated regulatory cross-references that may alter the classification, packaging or labeling of your products.

Innovating for Sustainability

A rising sentiment for greener, safer products is a clear message to us all. This competitive peer pressure is forcing product-focused companies to be more innovative with the products they take to market, the materials that go into the product and the materials and substances that are used in the manufacturing process. In other words, the concept of product sustainability is moving from “nice to have” to “need to have.”, Feb. 6: “The Next Decade: Five Trends in Product Sustainability.”

2Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell: “Sustainable Products Initiative.”

Kraig Haberer is the Chief Operating Officer for SiteHawk, a leading innovator in cloud-based MSDS and chemical data management solutions. SiteHawk offers a complete approach to MSDS management, chemical inventory tracking and product sustainability initiatives. To learn more, please visit

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