As a sustainability professional, we see more and more frameworks being introduced – each promises a direct path to positive impact. But which, out of hundreds of options, is the right path forward for your unique brand?
We hear such questions a lot in the plastic solutions space. Regardless of whether you sit in cosmetics, tourism, FMCG or otherwise, this is a common issue. Here’s the thing, though, no matter what framework you are using or will use, three questions can help guide you.
Having consulted for various industries, my colleague Aly, has reduced his 30 years of product innovation design into three guiding questions….think of this as your golden (plastic-free!) sustainability compass. So, if your strategy is in need of a reboot, pause and ponder:
1. Is your framework holistic enough?
2. Are your products regenerative?
3. Do you truly support your supply chain partners?
Not quite sure? More on each of these below.
Are your frameworks holistic enough?
Valuable tools like LCA need a holistic framework to contextualize their use. Using a single tool to address your product’s impact is like limiting yourself to only using a hammer to build a house. Cradle to Cradle and the UN Sustainable Development Goals are two examples of holistic frameworks of positive impact. These tools offer multiple perspectives on doing good and help define a complete toolkit for your sustainability plan.
Figure 1) The Five Cradle to Cradle Assessment Pillars
Are your products regenerative like nature?
It’s no longer enough for companies to do less harm. True leaders are seeking to create net benefits to the world by placing regenerative products on the market – regenerative products leave the world better than it was before. For example, is it truly enough to commit to halving your plastic use by 2025? As William McDonough (Cradle to Cradle design pioneer), articulates, yes, this is less harmful…you are no longer driving towards a brick wall at 100 km/hour. Instead, you’re driving towards the wall at half the speed. But shouldn’t we just walk around the wall instead? Some companies are now looking to sidestep that brick wall by designing like nature. Nature does, after all, have 3.8 billion years of R&D experience!
Normally brands focus on what goes into products, plastic or otherwise. Yet the real question is how will your product be useful to society after your customer is done with it? Just like nature, we need to design products that are part of a use cycle. (Think back to primary school lessons of the water cycle and the carbon cycle. Spoiler alert, there’s no landfill cycle!) Not sure where your products are in terms of regeneration? Explore the Cradle to Cradle Upcycle Chart.
Figure 2) The Cradle to Cradle Upcycle Chart.
Image Source:Perspectives on the Environment, 2015
Without asking this question, many well-intentioned brands create unintended negative consequences. For example, one jeans brand mixed denim with recycled polyester to promote recycling and lower their dependence on cotton, a water hungry material. Unfortunately, the brand only looked at what went into their product without asking how the jeans would be useful to society at end-of-use. The result? What was once a fully degradable cotton product became contaminated by recycled polyester, leaving landfill as the sole destination. If we overly simplify the design challenge to what material is less harmful, we poorly define the real problem – are we creating regenerative products?
Do you know and support your supply chain?
It’s increasingly common for brands to divorce themselves from manufacturing. This puts your brand at risk of human rights and environmental infringements. And no, this is not an Asia problem, it happens worldwide.
Know your supply chain, they are your partners and if you are lucky, they can guide you. Limiting yourself to trust and verify via third party audits removes a key partner from innovation and can overlook glaring issues with one eye closed. You might also miss some key insights in how to make a better product.
What happens when you find a struggling factory partner? This is your leadership moment to engage and help them improve, and their chance to help you improve. This is not the moment to give up and walk out on a partner. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that risk is everywhere and resiliency is everything. Investing in growing relationships with your supply chain is one of the best risk management tools to build a resilient business.
Looking for new resources? If you’re just starting off, check out Cradle to Cradle’s 5 Assessment Pillars and their Upcycle Framework. Already knees-deep in sustainability? Delve deeper into the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals framework and familiarize yourself with its targets and indicators. If you really want to dive into metrics, look at the Global Impact Investor Network’s Impact Toolkit.
Need more background to catch up?
By now, most brands realize sustainability is important, but what does this mean in practice and to your stakeholders? Sustainability means many things depending on who you ask. The communality is to reduce negative social and environmental impact, while making a profit, through sustainable development. Generally speaking, sustainable practices step away from non-renewable activities – fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gas emissions, for example.
A sustainable future will require us to think long-term for future generations. By designing a business model that supports sustainable ecosystems, brands can promote environmental protection, social welfare, and long-term economic prosperity.
Environmental protection entails a business existing without degrading the ecosystem, including natural resources with and without economic value. Sustainable practices like reducing the amount of resources, encouraging consumers to reuse and designing recyclable products help prevent unnecessary use of inputs like energy use and pesticides.
Social welfare ensures that all humans have access to basic resources. For example, healthcare and air quality are examples of interlinked environmental issues. The unfortunate reality, worldwide, is that air pollution, plastic pollution and other forms of pollution are typically concentrated in communities with low-socioeconomic demographics.
Sustainable development is the only pathway for long-term economic prosperity. The logic is simple. There is only so long that we can “drink from the cooler” without it going empty. Business models that adopt sustainable practices into the strategic core of their business, and not solely as a marketing tool, will be “refilling” their coolers faster. Investors are divesting from businesses that are likely not “refilling their coolers”, by analyzing sustainability reporting results. These results show if businesses are not de-risking their supply chain and moving towards a sustainable business model. The rise of the conscious consumer, those who prefer to buy a product that aligns with their ethics, is another reason businesses can no longer ignore sustainability. At the end of the day, sustainability is also just the right thing to do – that cannot be ignored. This doesn’t mean every business has to address every sustainability challenge. For example, a supermarket chain may focus on minimizing food waste and an airline on lowering emissions to prevent global warming.
Curious about Plastic Collective and our Eco-Champion Aly Khalifa?
Plastic Collective is a social enterprise that establishes projects in rural and vulnerable communities that collaboratively, transparently, and innovatively prevent plastic from leaking into our environment.
Aly is based in North Carolina, USA. As President, he leads the team in innovating plastic recycling technologies and programs worldwide while overseeing the US office. This includes pioneering methods to create new products from recycled materials, generating Plastic Credits, business modelling, supply chain development and scaling the enterprise.
Trained as a mechanical engineer and industrial designer, Aly has 30 years of experience innovating sustainable products, manufacturing lines and supply chains around six continents. His collaborations with distinguished talent have garnered dozens of patents, design distinctions and an Eisenhower Fellowship. Having exited his own start-ups, Aly is an active voice in the impact entrepreneurship community, including featured presentations at Sustainable Brands.
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