Vice President, Sustainability Solutions for NextLife
Sustainability is a phrase that is widely used, yet rarely understood. Sustainability is about the capacity to endure; to continue with the model you are doing, not just for a long period of time, but essentially, ideally, “forever”. A symbiotic relationship where the waste that is generated becomes new material for products that serve a purpose and when the purpose is fulfilled reused for another purpose. That is ideal sustainability. In order for sustainability programs to succeed in a capitalistic society, it must not only be good for the environment but also financially viable for the business that ventures on this type of program. True sustainability is about providing a product that has 3 fundamental qualities:
- Provide the same or better quality than competitive products
- Provide same or better cost to the consumer than competitive products
- Provide a better environmental benefit to the environment than competitive products
It is not a coincidence that many green products have failed and it’s not because there isn’t a demand. Most manufacturers never take the time to provide a sustainable product that works better and also costs the same or less than non-sustainable brands. Most manufacturers’ idea of “green” is making an inferior product, charging 15% more and calling it “Green”. Consumers see past the hype and ultimately choose a product that meets all of their objectives, sustainability being just one check in the box of requirements.
Government agencies like the FTC are helping in the fight against “Greenwashing”, which is the intentional or even un-intentional hyping of environmental messages to the consumer by cracking down on would be Greenwashers. If you have a product with an environmental message, there are a few things that you need to be aware of. The most important thing is to ensure that you have third party verification of any environmental claim you make. If you say it, be prepared to prove it. This is something that most businesses have never been challenged on. However, due to the enormous amount of false advertising in the “green” arena, the FTC is actively challenging vague and outrageous environmental statements on products to protect consumers. Having reliable third party verification of an environmental claim is the best way to stay out of hot water.
If you claim that a product is made out of 25% post consumer plastic material, it can’t be because Joe factory worker told you so. The material, process and procedures need to be documented and reviewed by an independent source to ensure that no mistakes are made. A Lifecycle Assessment is a great way to understand and set a baseline as well as to develop a roadmap to plan for changes. In addition, if you find that your product qualifies for a label or mark, the label you receive is not an endorsement of your product per-se, it just means that you’ve met the requirements that the company has outlined for entrance into their standards. That’s important to realize as too many business slap a green-looking mark on the side of their product and tout the item as “Great for the Environment”. True sustainability takes time and it’s NOT an all or nothing proposition. You should start with easy items and work your way up to the hard ones.
Here are a few tips to help your business as you travel on the road to sustainability.
- Don’t propose something that’s not seen as carrying value to your organization.
- Develop a solid business case including, if possible, the financial return
- Clearly define scope of sustainability initiatives.
- Quick “wins” are always important to the long-term success of any sustained plan.
- Engage other departments and personnel from the top all throughout the entire organization.
- Make everyone accountable for the success of their part, and the entire program.
- Working with a third-party provides critical, independent validation of your meaningful sustainability initiatives.
Sustainability is a journey. Like any trip, you need to properly plan your way or you just may find yourself lost in the woods.