Successful companies rapidly are bringing sustainability into product development. The Pure Strategies report "The Path to Product Sustainability" uncovers this emerging trend.
For the report, Pure Strategies surveyed 100 global consumer product companies involved in product sustainability and conducted in-depth interviews with heads, directors and managers of sustainability at leading companies such as Coca-Cola, Henkel, Seagate and Timberland.
Research participant Reckitt Benckiser has been at the forefront of this trend and demonstrates the best practices identified in the research. RB is a global health, hygiene and home company with brands including Clearasil, Lysol, Scholl and Woolite.
Setting new priorities
RB's purpose is to provide "healthier lives and happier homes." When the company determined that over 90 percent of its carbon and water impacts were from raw materials and consumer use — not manufacturing — RB set out to address this with an ambitious goal of one-third of net revenue coming from more sustainable products by 2020. Dave Challis, category group director of global sustainability, consumer and sensorial sciences and sourcing, pointed out, "This goal translates sustainability into the language of the business, and taps into how it measures success, and as a result we have experienced an uptick in business engagement."
To make the most of this organizational alignment RB honed in on improving carbon, ingredients, packaging and water to meet this target and to keep the business focused on critical improvement opportunities. These four priorities shaped the program and the limited set of issues enabled faster training, tool development and integration into the product development process.
Empowering research and development
RB empowered its R&D teams by raising everyone's knowledge and awareness of the focus areas and providing them with the right tools. The sustainability department is not doing product assessments; R&D has the information to make decisions on its own. Challis summed this up by saying, "We take the approach of teaching our teams to fish instead of fishing for them."
The company's Sustainable Innovation Calculator is at the heart of the program. RB developed this streamlined tool to allow product developers to make real-time decisions. It is based on scientific measures for water and carbon and market demands in packaging and ingredients. Each priority is guided by just a few metrics that drive design change. For example, packaging targets include packaging efficiency per dose and the use of post-consumer recycled materials.
The calculator displays results with a visual gauge, so complicated units are not needed to quickly understand the result. This enables faster response and wider adoption across the organization. The tool is particularly powerful as it gives information to the developers when they need it the most — during the development process — so they can see the impact of their decisions and make product design choices that ensure a more sustainable outcome.
RB also provides its developers with ingredient guidelines and profiles to help them make the right decisions about human health and environmental fate in product formulas.
Best practices revealed
RB evaluates each product against its four priorities — carbon, ingredients, packaging and water — throughout the formal product development process. This begins at the concept phase, where sustainability is included in the product development brief to identify actionable improvement opportunities. Challis noted, "This helps us address potential issues in the design phase instead of at the end of the pipe." Management then assesses progress during development and pre-launch by reviewing the calculator output for the product. The launch recommendation then includes the key improvements made in the product.
RB determined three best practices uncovered in the research that help integrate sustainability into product development.
1. Focus development teams on a clear set of priorities.
2. Provide sustainability information and tools to the development teams to guide their decision-making.
3. Include sustainability in the "stage gate" management reviews on progress for each project throughout the development process, from concept to commercialization.
Other leading companies also have implemented these approaches to yield widespread benefits from their product sustainability programs. Integrating sustainability into product development and other core business activities is critical and together with leveraging clear goals and strategies and effective assessment tools are keys to success for product sustainability programs.
Top image of Lysol by Mike Chaput via Flickr.