Product Stewardship: Working to Minimize the Environmental Impacts of Products
Recently, I spoke with a young man in his early 20s about recycling and the conversation moved to product stewardship. I asked him if he knew what the term meant. He thought for a moment, shook his head and said, âProduct stewardship, whatâs THAT?â
Industry insiders know the definition of product stewardship to be âthe act of minimizing health, safety, environmental and social impacts, and maximizing economic benefits of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages.â And, we know that âthe producer of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. Stewardship can be either voluntary or required by law.â Simply put, product stewardship is a policy of minimizing the environmental impacts of products in the marketplace.
Product stewardship programs focused on caring for our environment use the term often because it precisely describes an important aspect of our work – our mission.Â Current product stewardship organizations like PaintCare (serving paint industry), CARE (serving the carpet industry) and Call2Recycle (serving the battery industry) share the same challenge in connecting with consumers who are likely interested in what we do, but may be excluded by the words we use and what it means to them.
Using messaging that is easy to understand allows the consumer to embrace all the wonderful benefits of product stewardship. Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), agrees that the term may not be as popular as other environmental buzzwords, but says that, as far as consumers go, taking actions that support product stewardship is far more important than just being able to recite a definition.
âConsumers are one of the most powerful change agents in the marketplace, and they can make a lasting, positive impact on the future of product stewardship just by making an effort to understand how our everyday products affect our health and our environment,â Cassel said. âOf course, product stewardship has to start with the manufacturer before consumers can do their part. That means designing products that are environmentally preferable and setting up programs that allow consumers to safely manage products at the end of their useful lives. The issue is less about getting consumers to use the term âproduct stewardshipâ and more about getting them to take environmentally responsible actions that support the principles of product stewardshipâactions like dropping off their leftover paint, prescription drugs, batteries, or unwanted electronics at designated take-back sites.â
How many people are left out of conversations about product stewardship simply because they are not familiar with the term?
To my knowledge, there are no studies that accurately measure the publicâs understanding of our industry buzzwords. As a result, the Call2Recycle team conducted a quick, non-scientific phone survey with adults (aged 19-73, with a variety of education levels, living in different states) and asked them two questions: first, What is recycling? and second, What is product stewardship?Â Hereâs what we learned:Â Everyoneknew what recycling means, how and why it is done. But, with product stewardship:
- Almost no one knew of the term or what it meant. The one who did, a 43-year-old executive who works with automotive paint pigments, was familiar with product stewardship because itâs his business to know.
- About half were so unfamiliar with the term that they wouldnât even venture a guess.
- One-third had no idea but felt comfortable sharing a guess based on their knowledge of the words âproductâ and âstewardship.âÂ Some of the responses included: â...using products as directed...â, â…sharing products with others, â or this one, â…a marketing term, to wisely maintain legal integrity of a brand or trademark…â
As product stewardship organizations, we need to identify ways to better share information and talk about who we are and what we do using language that is understandable by industry experts and consumers, alike. With Earth Day 2013 upon us, itâs a great time to talk about this topic with a consumer friendly approach.
Launched in response to the environmental damages caused by a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., the first Earth Day in 1970 led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. It was the spark for a cultural shift, with millions of individuals, spearheading and rallying behind efforts to protect our environment and natural resources. This revolution of sorts literally changed how business is done, how products are designed, what goes into them and what happens to them at the end of their life.Â This is what product stewardship is at the consumer level.
Now 43 years later, studies show that consumers are still interested in and passionate about eco-friendly solutions and they are supportive of product stewardship efforts and learning more about it, even though they may know what it is called.
In 2011, SC Johnson commissioned a large-scale survey to illuminate American attitudes and behaviors with respect to the environment.Â While not specifically focused on product stewardship, The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior provides insights that can help us better advance our cause with consumers, including:
1. Americans are less likely to be confused over what is good and bad for the environment (about seven in 10 say they know a lot or a fair amount about environmental issues).
2. Americans want companies to âgo greenâ and there is evidence that they give credit to companies that do so.
3. About three in four (74%) agree âa manufacturer that reduces the environmental impact of its production process and products is making a smart business decision.â
4. An eco-friendly call to personal action is likely to be especially effective if consumers see that other key playersânamely, government and businessâare also doing their part to protect the environment.
A 2012 survey on âGreen Guiltâ revealed that âAmericans increasingly feel an obligation to recycle, and that they share responsibility with manufacturers and others to reduce the environmental impact of many products.â This is product stewardship at its best.
For product stewardship programs, these results are great news. But they are especially important when evaluated through the lens of this statement from the EPA, âWithout consumer engagement in product stewardship, there is no âclosingÂ the loop.ââ
There is a lot of support for what we, as environmental sentinels, do. And although people don’t know about it now, there appears to be a great willingness to learn and to participate with us. Our challenge now is to connect better and harness the power of that support. Helping consumers better understand product stewardship is important because together, we can help drive great change, much like the spark that came out of the first Earth Day.
Linda Gabor is VP of Marketing & Customer Service, Call2Recycle, Inc., a product stewardship organization operating a no-cost battery take-back program.
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