What Makes a Product Sustainable?

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

Photo by Laura Mitulla

Sustainable” is a trendy word nowadays. It is thrown around in marketing campaigns like a decorative pillow which looks good, but most of the time feels flat. Companies and brands claim their products are sustainable for the buzz and the hype, playing on our generation’s environmental consciousness and demand for products and services that won’t accelerate the already imminent destruction of our planet. But do these products live up to the claims? And can we, the consumers, identify sustainable products?

We can if we know what to look for.

50 Shades of Green

Eco-friendly, green, and sustainable are often used as if they’re interchangeable terms, but although sustainable products are also eco-friendly and green, the opposite doesn’t apply.

Eco-friendly or environmentally friendly is the narrowest of the terms, and can be used to define any product claiming minimal or no harm to ecosystems and the environment.

Green products are energy efficient, durable and usually require low maintenance. They’re often made from recycled materials, or from renewable sources, and can be biodegradable or easily reused or recycled at the end of their life cycle.

When it comes to the environmental part of the definition, sustainable products include all of the above and take it up a notch, claiming actual benefits and designed not to limit or affect future generation’s access to natural resources. But there’s so much more to a sustainable product…

The Holistic Meaning of Sustainable

If you google it, the first entry is from Wikipedia, and it says this:

“Sustainable products are those products that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and environment over their whole life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials until the final disposal.”

Pretty good right? But we can go further.

There are three main things that make a product sustainable: life-cycle orientation, dual focus, and significant improvements.

As we covered before, a sustainable product is eco-friendly and green but it is so during its entire life cycle. This means that from the extraction of the raw materials to the disposal of the final product, there must be no permanent damage to the environment. The book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, expands on this notion, by suggesting we should make every material and product so that at the end of its life cycle it can be upcycled, recycled or composted.

The dual focus is what sets sustainable products apart from purely eco-friendly or green ones, because sustainability has both an ecological and social meaning, which can be seen in actual improvements, as these products must contribute to dealing with socio-ecological problems on a global level. This means that a truly sustainable product should be eco-Friendly, green, and fair trade.

Still not quite enough? Let’s keep going…

The Attributes of Sustainable Products

In a more detailed approach, we can identify six key attributes of Sustainable products:

Resource Base

The way that resources are managed, conserved, or protected is a key factor in the overall sustainability of a product and varies based on the type of resource.

Life Cycle Factors

A lot of data, tools, and processes have been developed to measure the life cycle impacts of a product and have been incorporated into the ISO standards on life cycle assessment. These standards are used to understand globally significant impacts such as the contribution to climate change, the amount of renewable and non-renewable primary energy consumed across the system and the amount of waste generated across the entire life cycle of a product.

Human and Ecological Risks

Ideally, a sustainable product would not use hazardous substances. However, products like batteries and circuit boards incorporate hazardous substances by necessity (at least for now) and so it’s important to understand how worker, consumer, or environmental exposure to these substances is being managed and how they’re recovered and disposed of.

Socio-Economic Factors

These factors include worker treatment, fair allocation of revenues and profits, no use of child labor or conflict minerals. Like lifecycle factors, they should be evaluated throughout the entire life of a product.

Life Cycle Costs

These refer to the actual cost of a product throughout its life, including environmental costs like emissions or use of water, social costs like worker health and safety and the cost of equipment to produce, operate and dispose of a product.

Technical Performance

Technical performance determines if a product fits its purpose and meets quality standards for its use but also for its reuse. This is the concept of circularity; whether a product is designed to encourage reuse, recycling or composting.

So What is a Sustainable Product?

To summarize, we can turn the 6 attributes shown above and all the factors we've discussed so far into 4 sustainability pillars, giving us a definition of the ultimate sustainable product:

- a product that is made with responsible materials, produced in an ethical way, has an efficient life cycle and can be disposed of with minimal impact.

There are a lot of different denominations and certifications for products that aim to reduce environmental impact and contribute to the goal of a fair society, but sustainability has big shoes that are hard to fill. Actual sustainable products, from both an environmental and social perspective, are not common but they’re becoming less rare and they’re what we want all products to become one day. In the meantime we support green, eco-friendly, fair trade (…) products because they bring us one step closer to an ideal sustainable world.

If it doesn’t just implode before that. Let’s give it a try anyway, what do you think?

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