Using Green Materials and Supply Chains to Make Sustainable Products

One of the hurdles to making sustainable products is figuring out what the term sustainability means for different materials and ingredients.

Jason Pearson, president and CEO of GreenBlue, a research and design institute, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about how companies are using metrics such as recyclability and renewable energy when determining the quality of products, and what efforts are underway to make cleaner supply chains.

Jason will be presenting at’s Greener by Design conference June 12-13.

Jonathan Bardelline: How are companies rethinking or changing the ingredients and materials in their products, with a focus on sustainability?

Jason Pearson: Well let’s start with the question of rethinking their products from the perspective of sustainability, and then talk a little bit about ingredients specifically. As you may know, what GreenBlue does as an organization in the world is work with leadership companies by industry sector or product category to try to help them move toward more sustainable solutions for their products and services.

Currently, we work in three areas: packaging, cleaning products, and building products and materials. And probably the best example of how companies are rethinking their work in relation to sustainability, I can draw some our work running the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

What we see there is that the companies that are engaged in the Packaging Coalition, as members are, first and foremost, interested in what this term sustainability means. And what we find, whether we’re working in packaging, cleaning products or any product category is the term means something different, depending on the product category you’re talking about, and then more specifically, the context of use for a particular product.

And the way that we help companies understand that is by talking in terms of metrics, and most companies that we work with are familiar with conventional business metrics for products like cost, performance, appearance, sometimes regulatory compliance. And those are metrics that they use to measure their performance, and to define quality for their products and to compare themselves to their competitors.

What we see happening in this area of practice that gets called sustainability is that a range of new metrics are getting added to the consideration or, really, to the definition of quality.

So, a range of new metrics or new attributes are getting added to the definition of quality for different types of products. So, in the case of packaging, it’s no longer good enough for a package to be, to perform well on cost, performance and appearance, and regulatory compliance, but customers of that package, customers who are going to see that package, wherever they are in the supply chain are increasingly asking questions about whether the package is recyclable, whether the materials that are in that package are safe and healthy for people and the environment, whether the energy used to make that package was renewable energy and whether the use of that energy was efficient in every stage in the lifecycle.

All those questions are really new metrics, new aspects of the definition of quality packaging. And so, getting back to your question of how are companies rethinking what they’re doing, the way that we understand what’s happening is that companies are adding new metrics to their definition of quality or performance, and as they add their new, those new metrics, they’re needing to build up their research capacity and their understanding of those new issues in order to be able to perform well and to compete with their competitors in the marketplace.

The key points that we often make to the private sector is exactly that, that while at one time these new metrics or these new issues might have looked to companies exclusively like a challenge that they wanted to avoid, increasingly companies are seeing these new metrics or these new issues as opportunities for innovation and opportunities for competitive differentiation, so that just as a company can differentiate its product on the basis of cost or performance or appearance, they can now also differentiate their product on the basis of recyclability, intrinsic material health, use of renewable energy, fair labor practices within their facilities or along their supply chain, and that those factors actually matter in the marketplace, and can prove to be a competitive advantage in that marketplace.

So, that’s a very high level answer to the question of how we see companies rethinking what they do, in terms of what is getting called sustainability, and I would say that we don’t find the term sustainability that useful as a technical term. It’s useful as a general term to describe this group of new metrics that are being added to the consideration of quality, but the group of metrics varies, depending on product category, so it doesn’t, the definition of sustainability doesn’t really remain stable at the product level across different product categories. Our job, in some cases, is simply to define what sustainability means for different product categories or different product sectors.

So, now, getting to the second aspect of your question, which was the question of materials in products or in packages, in a way, that same way of thinking, that thinking in terms of metrics and what attributes matter, applies also at the scale of what ingredients go into materials, and what materials go into products. And I’ll give you an example from one of our other projects, a project called CleanGredients, which is a database that we’ve been developing which is an ingredient database of cleaning products and chemicals, so it’s a database of chemicals that could be used to make cleaning products. The role of the database is to sit in the supply chain of chemicals between companies that make chemicals and companies that use chemicals. So, some of the companies that make chemicals might be companies like BASF, or Dow or Dupont, who are making chemicals that they then want to sell to companies like Ecover or Seventh Generation or Sysco, who are going to mix those chemicals together to make a cleaning product.

The formulator companies, the Ecovers, the Seventh Generation, those companies that mix chemicals together are trying to find chemicals they can use, that when they complete the product, that product can then be a safe and healthy product, or what would get called in the marketplace, a green product or a sustainable product. The challenge for those formulator companies to find good ingredients to put into their cleaning products, and the job of our database, is to provide a listing of ingredient chemicals that they could use in their cleaning products.

The reason I say that the attribute-based approach is still relevant is that just as I can’t say there’s any such thing as a sustainable package or a sustainable product, because that definition varies by context and different attributes matter from different contexts. In the same way, when you look at a chemical that goes into a cleaning product, the cleaning product might be made up of seven or eight or nine different types of chemicals.

Some of those types of chemicals might be surfactants, solvents, fragrances. Each of those classes of chemicals is different and has different characteristics. So, when you’re looking at a surfactant, for example, you might care a lot about whether it’s toxic to aquatic ecosystems, whether if it got into a lake or a river, it would cause problems with that aquatic ecosystem. You might also care whether it biodegrades rapidly or not, since, if it got into that aquatic ecosystem, you would want to know whether it disappeared quickly, whether it degraded quickly or whether it remained for a long time. Those two attributes happen to be the key attributes that we should care about for surfactants. For solvents, we might care about different attributes or more attributes.

What we see our job in this database to help companies understand, when we’re looking at a surfactant chemical, what are the key attributes you should care about if you’re looking to create a green cleaning product that includes that surfactant?

The way that I describe this to a layperson, often, is it’s a little bit like the difference between the Good Housekeeping seal of approval approach and the Consumer Reports approach. Where a Good Housekeeping seal of approval might try to tell you whether a chemical is good or not, we try to tell you for each chemical that you’re looking to possibly use in your product, what are the things you should care about, and how did each of the chemicals that are currently listed on our database perform in the attributes that you would care about?

In the same way that Consumer Reports doesn’t tell you, “This is the best car on the market, this is the car you should buy.” They tell you, “If you’re purchasing a car, these are the key things you should care about,” and then help you to understand how each of the products currently on the marketplace compares within those categories of interior noise or repair history or fuel efficiency.

So then pulling it back then to my original point about what sustainability means, the key question we ask for each of the product categories we looked in, is was what are the metrics that matter? What are those headings that should be at the top of the Consumer Reports report columns that are important for each product category? And those, now, because of the movement toward more sustainable products and services, there are more column headings, there are more metrics you should care about.

JB: What you spoke about with the different ingredients, that seems to be one of the challenges for the companies making the final product and making a green product, sourcing every ingredient, every piece of packaging to be green. Is that one of the main challenges that these companies make in the final product are facing, and what are some of the other challenges out there?

JP: It’s no accident that we chose cleaning products and packaging in some of our early product categories that we focused on, because both are relatively simple product categories. Cleaning products are very simple products. They’re really little more than mixtures of chemicals. The supply chain is simple, a bunch of chemical suppliers supply chemicals for the formulator, who then mix it in a soup in a bottle and sells it, so it’s a relatively short supply chain.

When you start to look at more complex product categories, like, for example, electronics, where you have thousands of components in a single laptop computer, each of those components manufactured in any number of facilities or may pass from facility to facility around the planet. The complexity of trying to understand what materials went into each of those components and then being able to track those materials and make sure that, for example, if you’re a laptop computer manufacturer and you specify that you want certain materials to be used in your product to verify that, indeed, that specification has been met and a material or a chemical hasn’t been substituted by the manufacturer somewhere else in the world, whether in Europe or in Asia, or in Latin America or in North America.

That challenge is certainly a substantial challenge for companies who are focused on not only on the ingredients and materials in their products but also other aspects of their supply chains. Whether, for example, they’re using materials that are being produced in facilities that are fair to their workers, whether the energy that’s being used to produce materials and packages is renewable energy, how much energy is being used.

And that challenge of getting information to flow up and down along supply chains, getting more progressive specifications for materials to flow up supply chains towards the manufacturing end, and then getting those materials, the safe and healthy materials to flow down the supply chain and detract along the supply chain is a significant challenge and one that, that some the largest companies in the world, I would point to Wal-Mart, for instance, with their work in their Sustainable Values Network as an example of a company who is trying to gain insight into their supply chain and into the types of materials being used in their supply chain, and also some of the other aspects of their supply chain, such as labor practices or energy use.

Those are the challenges. I would say that there’s some positive movement towards addressing those challenges in a couple of areas. One is in the area of lifecycle assessment science. Over the past 30 years, lifecycle assessment as a way to look at supply chains and understand the inputs and emissions along the entire supply chain or the entire lifecycle of the product, has provided, has started to provide us with a rigorous scientific methodology for understanding the lifecycle of products, and for understanding supply chain.

The Holy Grail, of course, would be to actually be able to pass lifecycle information up and down supply chains in a credible, efficient way, and we’re not there way. But lifecycle assessment as a methodology provides us a way to start to understand where in our supply chains there might be hot button issues, focus points, where, for example, a lot of toxic materials is being used, or a lot of energy is being expended, and so companies are able to use lifecycle assessment as a way to identify problem points or opportunity points, really, within their supply chain to make significant improvement.

Also, some of the work that we’ve been doing at GreenBlue and the Packaging Coalition, developing something called COMPASS, which is a design tool for packaging designers, to help them understand the characteristics of the materials they put in their packages. What COMPASS allows the packaging designer to do, is, for example, if they’re designing a package for a particular product, to put in information about the materials that they would use for three or four different packaging options.

And then based on industry average, lifecycle information, for those basic packaging materials, materials like paperboard, or glass, or aluminum, steel. Based on industry averages, the nation, about the production of those materials, from cradle to gate, from the moment that extraction happens out of the ground, of the raw materials, to the point that the material is converted into packaging.

Based on industry average information about base packaging materials, we can make a pretty good guess at how different package designs using those different materials might perform on metrics like greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption.

So, we’re able to at least provide some approximate guidance for companies who are looking to try to make better choices. But we’re really in a very dynamic period right now in terms of information development, where we can develop a tool like COMPASS that’s based on industry average information and gives pretty good directions, but it’s not customized to a company’s specific supply chain, it’s based on industry average.

So a company might be sourcing the material from a facility that’s using entirely renewable energy. We don’t have a way to capture that or modify our data at this point to account for that, but over time, I’d say over the next five to 10 years, we’ll be developing increasing capacity, and I don’t mean GreenBlue, I mean collectively as a society we’ll be developing increasing capacity to be able to track that information.

JB: Along with what you spoke about lifecycle assessment, are there any solutions or concepts out there to improve this area that just haven’t been adopted on a widespread basis yet, or just haven’t been fully developed yet?

JP: I think the methodologies are there. For example, in the case of lifecycle assessment, a lot of the methodology is there, but we don’t have the data. For instance, as we’ve been developing this software tool that makes use of lifecycle inventory methodology to do lifecycle inventory for these base packaging materials, we could not find good, up-to-date, credible, validated data for industry average information for base packaging materials, so we have had to go out to the major industry associations of North America and ask them to collect that data.

Obviously, as a small non-profit organization individually making that request, we might not have a lot of success, but because we have a strong private sector membership in the Sustainable Packaging Coalition of over 170 member companies, all of whom are interested in this data being collected, together, with Wal-Mart, who has also said to the industry associations, “We are interested in this information, so please provide this information to GreenBlue.” So that if the industry associations provide this data, that data can become a common resource that can be used by anyone trying to understand the characteristics of the materials.

That effort, to try to create common, validated, publicly available data sets is a very important effort and one that many of our partner companies are very interested in seeing succeed, and it will require a lot of collaboration in order for that to happen.

We are hopeful that that data will become increasingly available and will become available in public, credible, transparent forms, as validated data that is, that can be used confidently to make decisions.

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