How full product transparency can embed sustainability at the core of your business

How full product transparency can embed sustainability at the core of your business

Editor's note: This article is extracted from the book Full Product Transparency (Dō Sustainability, December 2012) by Ramon Arratia, sustainability director at Interface EMEA. GreenBiz readers can use code GBiz10 at www.dosustainability.com to receive 10 percent off any DōShort.

Full product transparency (FPT) is having and providing a complete picture of the total environmental impact of a product throughout its life. The magic of embracing full product transparency is that it provides a consistent focus for everyone involved in every part of the business -- from product designers and innovators to marketing, sales and procurement staff. Here’s how it works:

Designers forced to redesign

The first thing that happens when you identify the key impacts of your product is that you have to redesign the product to reduce those impacts. This immediately gives your designers a clear objective, focusing on reducing key impacts rather than feel-good green gimmicks. Committing to performing a lifecycle assessment (LCA), whether it’s light or full, for every new product before it is launched gives your designers strong signals about what the company wants from them. How can a designer produce a more sustainable product without knowing what "more sustainable" is? Without the information provided by an LCA, brainstorming sessions come up with concepts such as "locally produced," "natural" ingredients, or a product made with the use of wind power. As a result, time and money is channelled into product redesigns that sound bold and innovative, but actually make very little difference to the overall impact of a product. By contrast, the results of a lifecycle assessment give design teams the opportunity to say "OK, we now know that 80 percent of the impact is in this area, so we need to work on reducing that impact." It’s a no-brainer.

Supply chain management without the 700-question questionnaire

The second thing that happens after an LCA is that the product managers should tell their purchasing colleagues to translate the findings of the LCA into requirements for suppliers. For example, once Interface knew that its biggest impacts came from virgin nylon yarn, it asked its suppliers to come up with a way to radically increase the recycled content in the yarn. One supplier saw this big opportunity, invested in a re-polymerisation plant to meet this demand and is now delivering 100 percent recycled yarn made from old nylon fishing nets.

Photo of window washer by mikeledray via Shutterstock.

FPT using information from the LCA enables a company to set out clear expectations to its suppliers and to focus on the activity that matters. It means a company can ask its suppliers to come up with radical, practical innovations that significantly will reduce the environmental impacts of the product, rather than tinker around the edges. Supply chain management becomes less complicated, too. Instead of sending suppliers 700-question questionnaires with inane requests such as "Do you have an environmental policy?" or "Have you signed up to the Global Compact?" you can cut to the chase and talk to them directly about how they can help you to reduce the impact of your product. How transformative is a box-ticking questionnaire compared with asking suppliers to respond directly to your biggest environmental challenge?

Marketing with a ready-made angle instead of inventing labels

Once your suppliers have helped your innovation colleagues to produce more sustainable products, this enables your marketing department to make environmental claims based on fact, not greenwash. The marketers now have a ready-made "angle" for the product, as they are promoting something that genuinely has been designed to be sustainable. They no longer have to come up with post-justifications about the product’s sustainability. Like everyone else in the company, the marketing team can focus on communicating the big impacts that really matter. They have no need to come up with another green label or gimmick, as the message is embedded in the product itself.

Promotion materials with full transparency leave little scope for sales reps to exaggerate

By the same token, your sales staff can now enter LCA facts into their tender documents and sales materials. FPT means a customer clearly can see the impacts of a product across the various stages of its production and use, so this enables a comparison of your product with others. Printing this information on marketing materials means the sales force has no scope for sexing-up stories; the facts are right there in front of everyone, and cannot be altered. What is more reassuring: if I tell you to trust me, that all my company’s products are good for the environment, or if I tell you: "This product has 5.7 kg CO2 and this one has 12.9 kg CO2"? In the latter case, you have the hard facts – along with the other usual information about as design, price or service. You can use all of these facts to make a buying decision.

Customers enabled by the pure facts

Let’s forget consumers for a moment. My mother in the supermarket does not really care about the amount of kg CO2 in the products she buys. She doesn’t have the time or the inclination to look at the facts. But other customers do, including:

  • Governments that have committed to public procurement but don’t know how to make buying decisions because the product providers can’t give them the information they need, so at the moment they are relying on labels
  • B2B (business-to-business) buyers, such as architects, who design green buildings but are unclear as to which products to use
  • Retailers such as Walmart or Tesco who are driving carbon emissions reductions across their supply chain but have very little data from their suppliers to work on.

With these customers, and others, the demand for plain facts as opposed to catchy labels or stretched claims is out there right now – and it’s growing. This is the interesting bit about the stars aligning. When customers also align to FPT thinking,then things begin to happen. And if your company is tuned into that customer demand for transparency, then you are delivering yourself a huge competitive advantage.

Getting everyone into line

If companies were mandated to publish FPT information, then they could hardly just ignore the information that this brings forth. As a consequence most of them would begin to reduce the impact of their products almost immediately. They would be forced to set targets, show progress and benchmark themselves against competitor’s products. This is what happened with sustainability reporting. Now we need to take this competition to the more fertile product territory.

If this brave new world were to emerge, then retailers would be able to edit the choice of products they offer to consumers, and they could nudge suppliers to improve the impact of their products. Perhaps only 5 percent of consumers would care about sustainability, but under these circumstances, that would be enough to change things.

The alignment would not stop there. Governments would have full knowledge of product impacts and could enact all kinds of policy instruments based on that information. NGOs would have the full data too, so they could focus on some bad product categories and apply pressure for improvements to be made. Government procurement teams then could support the growth of environmental products by making fully informed decisions to buy the most sustainable products and services.