Between Silos, Beyond Walls: The Product Stewardship Puzzle

Carol Singer Neuvelt

Last week I traveled to Boston for NAEM’s Product Stewardship conference, where we discussed best practices for complying with new product-focused regulations, internal collaboration, managing supply chain data, and engaging customers and suppliers.

Like many sustainability initiatives, “product stewardship” is an exciting concept, with the potential to spur innovation and transform the structures on which our current industrial ecosystem is built. Whether your company defines product stewardship broadly as “green product development” or in terms of compliance with product regulations, it involves re-thinking the fundamentals of how the product was designed, produced and labeled.

This is easier said than done.

From the outside, finding out what goes into your products might seem pretty straightforward: First, you ask your product development or research and development folks to tell you what materials go into your products. Then, you find out where those materials came from and document that information.  Simply talking to your first-tier suppliers, however, will not likely yield the full answers you seek. For diversified manufacturers with global supply chains, product stewardship is an exercise akin pulling a loose thread on a sweater and seeing how long it takes to stop unraveling. Where does it end? And how far back “beyond the gates” is your company accountable?

In the overall history of manufacturing, the era of transparency is in its infancy. Our globalized manufacturing platforms operate on systems which were designed to be predictable, reliable and cost-effective. Introducing a new variable may be the next step in the evolution of proactive environmental management, but meeting the challenge of this paradigm shift will take time to accomplish. Companies are not yet accustomed to disclosing the information their customers and the regulations are now requiring; companies might not have data management systems adequate to meet the challenge; suppliers might not have the data their customers are seeking; that data may require third-party validation before it can confidently relied on; and, the transparency of that data may be associated with unintended business risks.

In other words, it’s a process. A process that has yet to be mastered.

Our recent benchmarking survey on the topic revealed that among the leadership companies who belong to NAEM, there is not a consistent approach to defining, managing or leading product stewardship efforts.  Given the systemic nature of this challenge, many companies have responded by creating a cross-functional team composed of representatives from environment health and safety (EHS), procurement, legal, research and development, operations and marketing. The outstanding management question companies are struggling with, however, is who should be ultimately responsible for the outcome of the collaboration?

It’s likely that each industry, each company and each business team will answer that question for itself. But the issue of accountability is yet another thread on the sweater, a reminder that like many sustainability initiatives, the product stewardship challenge involves as many questions as answers.

About Carol Singer Neuvelt

Carol Singer Neuvelt is Executive Director of NAEM. Her long-term perspective and insights into corporate EHS and sustainability best practices also have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, the Bureau of National Affairs, Environmental Leader, the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health magazine and Sustainable Life Media. She is the former Deputy Director for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Public Liaison, where she managed the agency’s interaction with external stakeholders. Follow her on Twitter at @carol_neuvelt.

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