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Supplying sustainable products
Considering some of the issues facing suppliers of consumer goods.
Image © iStockphoto.com | Petmal
The term ‘sustainability’ is becoming ever more prevalent as governments and individual organisations set targets to reduce their impacts on the planet in order to tackle climate change, often with a particular focus on reducing carbon emissions. However, it should be remembered that as well as environmental considerations, there are also financial and social sustainability impacts to take into account. For example, retailing products at below the cost of production is not a financially sustainable practice, as an organisation’s capital will be consumed over time and any downward pressure on prices is likely to have a negative impact on the working conditions in the factory supplying the goods. Something that is ‘sustainable’ is able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. In a business context, sustainability occurs at the intersection of people, profit and the planet.
There is a wide range of materials used in the manufacture of consumer products, and each material will have its own sustainability characteristics. These are reviewed below for three significant materials: leathers, textiles and polymerics.
Leather from cattle, sheep and pigs is considered as a by-product of the meat industry. In terms of the raw material, this should be available as long as there is a market for meat products. However, supply is vulnerable to changing eating habits and priorities regarding land management.
Once the raw skins reach the tannery, sustainability issues revolve around water use, which is a critical resource in many developing countries. This is especially true if the tannery is extracting or discharging water from a watercourse that is used as a resource by other users either for other processing, irrigation, drinking or even leisure. Extraction rates and discharge rates should be as close as possible, and the discharged water should meet stringent levels in terms of pollutants, colour, pH and temperature.
The chemicals used for the leathermaking process must also be considered and carefully managed. Restricted chemical legislation is rapidly changing and the leather producer needs to adhere to current requirements. There is also ‘best practice’ information available regarding use of chemicals in the free United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) document ‘The Framework for Sustainable Leather Manufacture’.
Many issues encountered in the processing of natural textiles are the same as those associated with the leather tanning process, including the use of chemicals and the extraction of water for processing. In addition, the amount of water used in the growing of cotton is also critical, as the areas of the world where cotton is grown are those that can experience severe water shortages.
Image © Vladimir Georgievsky | Dreamstime.com
Synthetic textiles (like polymeric materials) are derived from oils. Most of the oil used in their production is derived from petroleum-based oils, which is a non-renewable resource that is under pressure from transport, power generation and other industrial uses. The alternatives to petroleum-based oils are those that are derived from crops, including rapeseed, sunflower, palm and soya. These are renewable, as crops can be planted and harvested each season. However, there is pressure on the land used to grow the oil-generating crops, as the same land may be required for growing food crops. Like petroleum, good arable land is a finite resource.
The same argument is also applied to the use of crops for energy generation. This type of fuel is renewable, but its production may not be the most efficient use of land in a specific region. When the price of oil is high, it provides an additional driver for organisations to move away from the polymers and fuels derived from this source.
End of life
Products on the market for which sustainable credentials are claimed are often based on a simplified design, and use components from an organic source (for instance, vegetable fibres, cork and unbleached cotton), or are products made from recycled materials.
The incorporation of recycled materials improves the sustainability profile of a product, as the impacts associated with the production, extraction, or growing of virgin materials need no longer to be considered. However, the key issue when using any recycled material is to ensure the supply of a feedstock (starting material) of a consistent quality. This can be difficult when relying on post-consumer waste, and it is often very difficult for these materials to be recycled back into the same supply chain.
Currently, there is considerable interest in the possibility of recycling and reusing textile products to alleviate the pressure on waste going to landfill sites. These schemes focus on campaigns to ensure that consumers are given options for disposal and understanding that, while they may no longer want an item, it may still have a useful life for others. Many companies are setting up their own ‘take-back’ schemes, often incentivising a consumer to return the product by offering a discount against a subsequent purchase. This allows specialist end-of-life solutions to be developed, including refurbishment and resale of the returned item, or disassembling the item to ensure that each constituent part is processed in the most sustainable way.
The biodegradability and compostability credentials of items at the end of their life is also a growing area. This can form part of a circular solution with materials being selected at the design phase which, under the right conditions at end-of-life, can be recycled into compost that in turn can be used to replenish soil and grow nutritious crops.
Image © istockphoto.com/ErminGutenberger
Many consumers are aware of sustainability issues, but do not always understand the detail of how a product impacts the environment or product resource. There are a number of schemes in existence for eco-labelling and for origin certification. These have different requirements, dependent on the application, and this can be confusing. SATRA, however, can help to verify claims made.
The most widely recognised way for companies to demonstrate their commitment to manufacturing products in a manner sympathetic to the environment is by operating an environmental management system in accordance with ISO 14001. SATRA is a certification body for both ISO 14001 and the ISO 9001 quality management standard.
There are a number of ways in which SATRA can assist your company. These include the following:
- the analysis of materials for residues of restricted chemicals which may have been used during processing
- material identification to ensure replacement materials are being used consistently
- fitness for purpose assessment of alternative/recycled materials
- independent verification of environmental claims
- independent auditing
- ISO 14001 certification
- assessment of products against eco-labelling criteria
- training on sustainability and environmental issues
- biodegradability and compostability testing.
How can we help?
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Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on supplying sustainable products.