INSIDE ITERATE: The Bigger Picture of Product Sustainability with Thomas Gray
Inside ITERATE sustainability is a subject that comes up a lot. From conversations with Clients to using sustainable design principles in the products we design. Thomas Gray is one the design engineers in the ITERATE team and this week’s article is inspired by a conversation with Tom about how product-based businesses have a responsibility to consider sustainability beyond just materials and marketing.
Sustainability is widely revered as a cornerstone of a responsible product and brand. This focus on sustainability has been driven by the voices of consumers who for years have pushed for more environmentally-conscious choices to be offered by brands. There’s no doubt that sustainability is and will continue to be a top priority for consumers. But, how can businesses live by this same value? The most successful product-based businesses are those that don’t just answer the demand with words, but who embed environmentally-considered processes into their business models and supply chains. Some go even further, recognising that sustainable systems have the power to enhance product experience.
Beyond the Buying Moment
Genuinely sustainable products are not those with “50% less plastic” plastered across their packaging, they are the products whose entire life cycle has been thought through and accounted for; this starts with product design. But it doesn’t end here. The latest discussion from inside the ITERATE team, was sparked by design engineer Thomas Gray. Tom explains that while materials and recyclability are a good place to start, to truly understand the sustainability of a given product, we must fill in the gaps and consider the full product life cycle and the user perspective more closely.
The product life cycle does not end when the product has been purchased, therefore neither does the business’s responsibility to the environment. This means approaching sustainability not as another desirable feature that will appeal to a customer’s appetite to buy, but as something which must continue beyond the buying moment. What matters most is whether the product’s end-users understand what they should do with a product when placed in their hands.
Material identification and disassembly play a vital role is ensuring a product can be successfully recycled in the first instance. When multiple components are used within a product, design for disassembly means that each component can be separated for proper disposal. A widely understood identification scale can also be used to clearly denote what type of material a given part consists of. The scale covers a vast range, but codes 1-7 refer to types of plastics and polymers, though code 7 refers to ‘other’ which could potentially be a mix. Nonetheless, by simply using this identification code on a product, it becomes easier and quicker for that product to be recycled correctly.
Better than Disposal
Even better than creating a product that can be recycled through conventional channels, is to create a closed-loop production chain. Closed-loop business models are those where companies take the waste from their original products back from their consumers to be converted into new products.
A great example of this is the Wales-based business, Splosh. Splosh commits to “leading the refilling revolution”, providing refills of their home cleaning products to eliminate the needless production of new bottles. Refills can be ordered through their dedicated app and are then directly delivered in the post. Splosh also encourages their customers to return their pouches which are either re-used or made into brand new products.
In this way, Splosh have masterfully built a more sustainable and more seamless product offering for their customers. In this instance, Splosh’s sustainable choice also creates more connection between their customers and their business.
Choosing Sustainable Materials
The journey beyond recycling is often not discussed. When plastics are recycled, they are typically downcycled; this means the material produced is of a lower quality than the original virgin material. This makes sense when we consider that the material has been used in a product for a certain lifetime, discarded, collected and recycled into something that can be used again.
This is not to say that recycled plastics don’t have value, their value is different. What it does mean is that recycled plastics are typically darker colours (often black), may be flecked or may have subtle inconsistencies product-to-product. Though for many products, like Mutiny Shaving, these slight material imperfections visibly tell the product’s story.
Understanding the properties of recycled and sustainable materials is important to help businesses make informed decisions about new product development. A product made with recycled materials will likely feel and look different to a product made with virgin materials. It’s the choice of businesses to commit to this difference and use it as a strength.
The regular INSIDE ITERATE Blog aims to give a glimpse into the world of ITERATE Design + Innovation, to share our thoughts, interests and how we work to bring ideas to life in exciting ways. See more insights from other members within the ITERATE team here.