10 Principles of Responsible Product Stewardship

10 Principles of Responsible Product Stewardship

Electronic waste - CC license by Flickr user Greenpeace India

There seems to be a growing assumption that it is possible to make products that are totally safe with no risks to health or the environment, no depletion of resources, no net energy use, no waste, no global warming and no responsibility on the part of users.

Sorry, but as far as I know, the second law of thermodynamics still holds: There is no free lunch. We cannot enjoy the benefits of products without some environment degradation and some health risks. But we can be safer and more sustainable in how we make and use products if we all practice product stewardship.

My definition of product stewardship: Product stewardship occurs when all those involved in the lifecycle of a product take responsibility to reduce the risk of adverse environmental, health and safety impacts to gain the most value from a product.

The use of this term by governments and NGOs like the Product Stewardship Institute -- to shift disposal/recycling costs to product manufacturers (aka "extended producer responsibility") -- is not what this article addresses. While product take-back may be the right solution for some product manufacturers, product stewardship is a broader core value that applies to every participant in a product's lifecycle and encourages lifecycle thinking by all. 


The following 10 principles are key to achieving product stewardship and apply to each of us involved in any product's lifecycle:

1. Shared Responsibility: Take responsibility to ensure products are managed safely throughout their lifecycle for the products that you supply, manufacture, distribute, use, dispose/recycle or regulate. The manufacturer of a product does not have complete control over every actor throughout a product's lifecycle. No matter how "foolproof" a product is, each of us has an obligation not to be foolish.

2. Lifecycle Thinking: Work to prevent or significantly reduce risks and increase sustainability throughout the product lifecycle. This could range from simple communications to redesign to regulations to withdrawing the product from the market. A product take-back program may be an effective and efficient component of product stewardship in some cases, as might substituting safer components. But beware of unintended consequences as you fix one problem only to create another.

3. Knowledge: Understand the potential environmental, health and safety risks of your actions – the inherent hazards associated with the materials you use and the exposures you may cause. In addition, understand how others in the product's lifecycle impact risk. The biggest burden for developing knowledge of a product's hazards falls on the manufacturer because it defines what the product is. Understanding the other necessary component of risk, exposure, is tougher. The challenges of acquiring the right kinds of information are addressed by some of the principles below and are the subjects of vigorous discussions around science, business proprietary information, transparency and public policy on what and when something is "safe enough."

4. Supply Chain Communication: Share information necessary for others to understand hazards and manage exposures in their portion of the supply chain. Products are part of complex systems involving a series of suppliers and customers (including waste handlers). You need to help those upstream and downstream from you minimize total lifecycle impacts and use more sustainable practices.

5. Stakeholders: Understand the concerns of the range of stakeholders who influence the success of the product – employees, stockholders, suppliers, neighbors, governments, peers and public interest groups. Determine what you need to do to assure these stakeholders that a product is being managed safely. Work together to find the best solutions that preserve benefits and reduce risks. Stakeholders determine what is "safe enough."

6. Teamwork: Determine who knows the what, where, why and how of a product to find more sustainable solutions. Product stewards do not work alone. They must work closely with and rely on experts who understand each aspect of a product's lifecycle so that risks can be characterized and controlled (manufacturing, marketing, research, legal, health and environmental, public affairs, etc.). Expert teams are also needed to continue developing reliable standards to evaluate and communicate risk information to customers. 

7. Awareness: Watch for new information relating to risks and safer products. Have processes in place that manage and quickly respond to changes that can impact product safety such as changes in resources, processes, science, technologies, uses, users/customers and societal and regulatory expectations. Try to anticipate and get ahead of changes.

8. Innovation: A commitment to product stewardship stimulates innovation in reducing risks and improving value to meet customer and societal needs with new and better products and processes. Building in sustainability and safety during the product design phase is the most effective way for a company to accomplish product stewardship.

9. Management: Implement practices that will continually move product stewardship forward. An ongoing plan-do-check-act cycle and all the other management tools you already use apply to product stewardship just like any other activity. Most importantly, product stewardship is not a one-time project; it's a way of thinking and acting responsibly.

10. Integration: Product stewardship should be integral to how a business operates and be part of the culture. It cannot be a stand-alone program performed by a staff group in a far off branch of an organization chart. Every function contributes to the lifecycle impacts of a product. Individual consumers also need to be product stewards whenever they buy, use and discard any product. We should all ask ourselves, "Is this the responsible thing to do?" The principles of product stewardship should become common sense.

Georjean Adams is president of EHS Strategies, Inc., designing practical environmental, health and safety programs based on product stewardship and lifecycle thinking honed during her 24-year career at 3M. She continues championing sustainability with the American Chemical Society, teaches a class on environmental regulations at the University of Minnesota, and blogs at Life Cycle Thinking.

Electronic waste - CC license by Flickr user Greenpeace India