WORK / Article Sustainability Mindset Questions

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An ongoing dialogue

Following on from the great response to our Sustainability Mindset webinar, there were several follow-up questions that were asked. In the interest of keeping the conversation open and ongoing, we’ve written some brief answers below to the questions that came in. Please get in touch if you’d like to ask more questions or help contribute to the answers.  

 

1. Are employers ready to actively seek/recruit talent and skills who can lead their sustainability mindset?

Within our network, companies across Europe and the US that are actively recruiting sustainable-focus hires are struggling to find people. These are in high demand right now, suggesting many companies are already hiring talented experts in this space. In the future, such employees will become essential/central, the companies that recognise this sooner will be gaining an advantage. 

It’s clear from our Sustainability Mindset study that there is a need in all organizations to hire people with a sustainability mindset, and not just leaders. Younger generations are being recognised as having an innate concern for sustainability challenges. Deloitte’s 2021 study highlighted Gen Z’s #1 greatest concerns centred on sustainability. Even in our research into the future of home fitness, 91% of Gen Z’s surveyed place high importance on a brand’s sustainability, more than any other demographic. All companies will benefit from having new employees that think in different ways, this will bring new solutions and innovations to the table.  

 

2. For innovation around sustainability, it seems that companies who get there first get all the merits from the market, resulting in competitors looking for different ways to show their contribution to sustainability. I think it is not healthy, how do we change this?

If we’re thinking with the sustainability mindset, such a competitive approach is not serving us. It’s not healthy but it’s the consequences of the old mindset. The sustainability mindset implies that instead of competing, the companies are joining together in addressing the challenges. That should mean companies who get there first share some of their know-how, like how Logitech shared their approach to carbon footprint certification with their competitors. Or a company that follows an existing methodology celebrates it or shows how it improved upon the initial approach. It shouldn’t be about who got there first, but rather elevating & educating the industry. The media have a strong part to play in this, by not only celebrating those who come first, but also those who have the courage to build on what has already been accomplished.  

 

3. What are the most sustainable materials that you use in your design process, for product design or packaging? 

This is a question we get asked (rightfully) very often by designers in our network looking to contribute and some clients as part of project briefs. The answer is not straightforward – it is not about specific materials as the question suggests, but about a specific process in order to identify the most sustainable materials for each application. Below are some of the key steps to consider when seeking the most sustainable materials. In a future article, we’ll also cover our design for sustainability (DfS) process that covers some of these steps in more detail.

Create awareness of the impact 

  • The first task is to capture what materials are being used in the application currently, understand the issues that surround these, high impact manufacture, supply chain transparency, difficulty in end-of-life disposal/recycling etc.
  • Engage with suppliers to capture the benefits of alternative materials.
  • Investigate how to reduce the amount of materials used (especially those with high impact)
  • Doing so often has additional positive benefits in lowering transportation and end-of-life disposal.

Lessen the amount of materials ending up as waste – lost value and pollution. 

  • Appreciate we are part of a bigger system.
  • Circular thinking is important here, not just the upfront lowering of impact, but the retained and recoverable value of the materials being used.
  • Prioritise materials that are recognisable and compatible with current recycling streams, especially kerbside collection for consumer packaging.

Consider alternative materials 

  • Seek replenishable and renewable feedstocks where possible, and where they provide functional performance with lower impacts.
  • Before selecting alternative eco-materials, verify they are holistically better than what they are replacing, addressing specific environmental impacts in isolation does not mean it is necessarily the most sustainable choice.
  • Biomaterials are gaining focus, there are distinctions here from naturally occurring materials, materials formed from bio-feedstocks, and materials that are biodegradable. The selection of alternative materials needs to be founded on holistic considerations for the intended application. You can find an excellent study here on understanding alternative plastics in a circular economy.

Think with the end in mind 

  • Does what we make result in waste, or can we design for material recovery?
  • Optimise the way in which we use a material to enhance its value at end-of-life, use coatings mindfully, do not laminate/bond, and combine different material types. Incur additional impacts and hamper recovery.
  • Goods entering the WEEE stream, make the materials easily separable and identifiable to facilitate the greatest recovery.
  • Paper and fibre-based products are highly recycled, and benefit from coming from replenishable sources, use them where they can be replacements.

Some Specific Cases 

  1. Long-term goods, we can invest more into materials that offer increased durability and greater retained value.
  2. When designing for food systems, home-compostable materials are a focus.
  3. When designing for medical devices that will require incineration, the focus on lower impact materials and their compatibility for incineration takes precedence over circularity in most cases.

 

Over the coming months, we will continue to publish our thoughts and know-how in this space, including how to use Life Cycle Assessment as a design tool, details on our design for sustainability process, and sustainability strategies when designing complex product experiences. Feel free to get in touch directly or on LinkedIn and Instagram, where we’ll be sharing all of the above. 

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