The Next Decade: Five Trends in Product Sustainability

This year marks GreenBlue’s 10th anniversary. One way we plan to recognize this milestone is to organize a series of articles about the future of the sustainability, products, and business. At the end of our first decade, what will the next decade bring for GreenBlue and the broader sustainability movement?

Through the coming year, watch this space for features and interviews with visionaries, thought leaders, business innovators, scientists, and educators. The question we’ll put to everyone will be this: Over the next decade, what will be the most important ideas and trends that will advance business toward sustainability?

To kick it off, we took a stab at answering this question ourselves looking at product sustainability. Together, the whole staff identified nearly a hundred topics and narrowed them down to a handful. Here are GreenBlue’s top five topics that we believe will become increasingly important for product sustainability in the coming years.

 1)     Water is the new carbon
The United Nations calls water scarcity one of the most significant problems of the 21st century. Nearly half the world’s population—3.3 billion people—lacks access to clean water or soon will, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us feel the pinch. As water scarcity competes with carbon emissions for the public’s attention, the sustainability dialogue could shift from global issues such as climate change to local, community-based solutions in developing regions. Major multinationals already are taking action. Since 1999, Frito-Lay has cut its water use by 40%, and Coca-Cola plans to become “water neutral” by 2020.

2)     Nature’s services get a price tag
The phrase “natural resources” often implies just the earth’s physical assets—water, fuel, materials, etc. But equally important are natural processes—the cleaning of water through the hydrologic cycle, for example—called “ecosystem services.” First formally defined by the United Nations in 2005, ecosystem services are declining, and their loss could become a significant market driver. Last month, the International Finance Corporation began requiring clients to “maintain the benefits from ecosystem services.” A project draining wetlands, for instance, would have to account for its impact not only on biodiversity but also on the loss of pollination services for surrounding farmers. The economics of a spike in True Cost Accounting could dramatically change how we do business. 

3)     Product transparency hits the tipping point
Despite the economic downturn, the demand for green products continues to rise, and with that demand comes more pressure for companies to disclose what’s in their products so that consumers can make more informed decisions. “We are approaching a tipping point,” declared the Financial Times in 2010, “beyond which everyone will want to know the provenance of their products.” Companies such as Patagonia, Method, Interface, and SC Johnson have led the pack with ingredient disclosure, and more and more businesses will follow suit. 

4)     Producer responsibility escalates
More aggressive ways to reduce waste and recover material at the end of a product’s useful life are increasingly urgent. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), or product stewardship, puts the burden of recovery on product makers, because, as the US EPA puts it, “manufacturers have the greatest ability, and therefore the greatest responsibility, to reduce the environmental impacts of their products.” Long required in many other countries, EPR is a growing trend here at home. To date, about two-thirds of the 50 states have product-specific EPR laws, and in 2010 Maine became the first state to enact a blanket EPR rule that in theory could apply to any product. The take-back programs of many electronics manufacturers and retailers, including IBM, Panasonic, Apple, Staples, and Best Buy, are reaping extraordinary financial benefits from the valuable scrap materials. From 2004 to 2009, Dell recovered 275 million pounds of computer equipment, and in the first year of its program Xerox saved over $50 million.

5)     Planned obsolescence becomes obsolete
The making of products, compared to their use, has an enormous environmental impact. Manufacturing consumer electronics, such as cell phones and computers, accounts for about 80 percent of the total energy consumption of those products. Yet, the average life of a cell phone is 18 months, and many companies bank on continual churn to sell more of their latest releases. Nokia estimates that extending the life expectancy of a mobile phone by a year could cut its total energy consumption by more than 40 percent, and other sources suggest that continuing to use a computer can mean 20 times greater energy savings than recycling it. More companies could improve environmental performance and customer satisfaction at the same time by making their products easier to upgrade. Julius Tarng’s Modai concept phone includes modular internals that can be replaced easily without discarding the whole phone. Brand loyalty could get replaced by object loyalty.

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