Product Stewardship: It’s Not a One-Size-Fits-All Challenge

Product Stewardship: It’s Not a One-Size-Fits-All Challenge

Chris Nelson

With product sustainability and stewardship issues becoming more important and complex in the marketplace it’s still unclear to many organizations what is the best approach in finding ways to create business value and manage risk associated with product sustainability and stewardship.

More than 100 EHS and sustainability leaders attended NAEM’s Product Stewardship Conference last week in Framingham,Mass. to discuss product sustainability and stewardship issues.  It’s rare when you get that many people together to discuss these topics so there was a lot of great information and insights shared between the attendees.

The topics varied and included the challenging global product regulatory landscape, leveraging life cycle management to create business value within an organization, managing supply chain transparency and reporting issues, and the different ways to design and implement product sustainability programs.

The thing that really caught my attention was how greatly companies differ in their approaches to creating value and managing risk from a transparency and performance improvement perspective, both key pillars to any product sustainability and stewardship program. The following are a few examples of  the strategies companies are taking.

Intel shared the approach they were taking to address the pending conflict minerals reporting requirements in section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act Conflict minerals such as tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold are an increasingly challenging issue within the supply chain, from the mining and extractive industry to downstream manufacturing companies in the electronics industry.  Intel’s serious approach to providing transparency about the sourcing of conflict minerals, was quite admirable and isn’t something you see every day.  The company believes transparency  is “foundational to fostering understanding and acceptance in order to move suppliers along the sustainability maturity curve.”   Since transparency is a critical part to any sustainability program so I’d suggest taking a look at a video Intel has created which explains how they are establishing a conflict free supply chain.

It was also very interesting to hear how APC Schneider Electric and WESCO International Inc. are using product sustainability programs to address customer requirements and create differentiation in the marketplace.  These represent very good examples of the challenges of balancing transparency and environmental performance as part of a product sustainability program.

APC Schneider Electric has developed a ‘green premium’ program that focuses on the transparency and reporting of the environmental performance on a selected group of its products.  These products must meet international standards and regulations such as RoHS, REACH and End of Life in addition to having a published and third-party-verified life cycle assessment.   Because there isn’t an environmental performance threshold to the program per se (other than meeting international standards and regulations) their definition of ‘green premium’ revolves around transparency and less on improved environmental performance of the product.  It will be interesting to see how their program evolves over time as they’ll likely need to answer more questions about the environmental performance of their products as this information is made available to customers and stakeholders.

Wesco has a fabric-based solution for laying cable in duct work called MaxCell.  Across its life cycle, this product has superior performance related to carbon emissions, but the company struggled to communicate an effective ‘sustainability story’ to their customers.  Ultimately Wesco chose to work with Carbon Trust, a third-party certification body, to verify their product carbon footprint.  Although the company chose not to use the Carbon Trust certification logo, it still went through the verification process  to confirm its environmental performance claims and as a demonstration to customers that the product would continue to reduce carbon emissions over time.

It’s clear that companies are challenged in finding ways to create business value and manage risk with product sustainability and stewardship.   The level of transparency a company chooses to provide depends on the overall strategy, and each decision brings its own benefits and risks.

What are the elements that shape your product stewardship strategy? How is your company adapting to the demands of product stewardship?


About Chris Nelson

Chris Nelson is a Partner with ERM, a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and sustainability consulting services. He leads ERM’s Global Product Sustainability Services Practice, which is focused on helping clients design and implement product sustainability programs that create business value from preferential environmental and social outcomes.

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