Global directives, national initiatives, state, and local regulations are all affecting what companies should or should not use in their products. Additional pressure is coming from consumers, employees, business partners, and non-government entities (NGOs), that affects the way we do business. 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.”
But does all of this just mean more expense to bear by the manufacturer, or even the consumer? The answer is no. When you consider the holistic perspective of not just the compliance risk avoidance, but also the value of risk mitigation and the gained competitive advantage of producing zero-footprint or near zero-footprint products, the return of product sustainability programs can be significant. Simply put, companies have a huge incentive and opportunity to lower their health and environmental footprint. Smart organizations are discovering ways to grow the top line, reduce costs, minimize risk, and find new markets, all of which support key corporate initiatives.
An Outside-In Perspective
While environmental, health, and safety (EH&S) teams have historically focused on internal drivers and risks, product sustainability initiatives start with an “outside-in” perspective. A number of consumer products good companies are starting to see a lot more customers with 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 Walmart 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 Walmart’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, augmented product data starts to become more familiar to the average consumer. As a result, it will soon be the generally accepted way of doing business.
One example of a company realizing the benefits of product sustainability practices is Saint-Gobain. Saint-Gobain is the world leader in the habitat and construction markets. They design, manufacture, and distribute building materials, ultimately providing innovative solutions to the challenges of growth, energy efficiency and environmental protection. With an extensive product portfolio that spans both industrial customers and end consumers, Saint-Gobain North America (SGNA) is committed to the highest sustainability and product standards in business today. Specifically, SGNA operates to limit the environmental impact of buildings, promote renewable energies, develop low-energy solutions, research and develop a world-class lineup of sustainable building products, and preserve natural resources, including water, wood and minerals.
What it means is that the environmental, health, and safety function is not just a watchdog, but a strategic partner to business. It means that EHS is not just compliance-focused, but business-focused. It means that the product stewardship function interacts with and influences product design decisions, manufacturing processes, environmental impact reduction strategies, employee health and safety, customer use case scenarios, and much more.
According to Dennis Wilson, Manager, Product Stewardship & HSE for Saint-Gobain North America, “In today’s world, it’s critical to business that alternative product uses are considered and put into practice. In a resource-constrained world, if you’re better at using resources than your competitor, you’ve got an advantage. Finding alternatives to virgin materials, re-using materials, re-using petroleum-based materials are all examples that can be put into practice.” The correlating benefit is that companies that use renewable products are less dependent on other organizations or even other parts of the world.
The Way Forward
Product sustainability offers a tremendous opportunity for EH&S professionals to participate strategically in the business. Just one example is the new product development process. Given that new product development is the lifeblood of any organization and requires a significant investment of capital, it’s paramount for companies to identify any risks early in the design process.
Equally important is the ability to identify material substitutes for the product, the packaging, or even the substances used in the manufacturing process. The role that EH&S professionals can play here is to provide the tools and the data to pre-screen materials during the early stages of the product lifecycle to identify potential environment, health, and market risk. For example, it may be meaningful to compare your product ingredients or raw materials against the SIN (Substitute It Now) list, which names substances likely to be restricted or banned in Europe and other countries in upcoming years. As such, the production and use of these substances contains both a market and financial risk which can be prevented with the right data and tools. At the end of the day, working with the product and marketing teams to accelerate the successful commercialization of products is a huge strategic win for sustainability professionals.
Kraig Haberer is the chief operating officer for SiteHawk, a leading innovator in cloud-based MSDS and chemical data management solutions. They offer a complete approach to MSDS management, chemical inventory tracking, and product sustainability initiatives. The information in this article comes from a white paper entitled “The Business Case for Sustainability and Product Stewardship.” For the complete white paper, please visit: http://www.sitehawk.com/downloads/product-sustainability-and-stewardship.pdf.