Product sustainability talks ‘need to push boundaries’

Waste experts have welcomed the creation of a product sustainability forum to tackle the environmental impact of consumer goods, but question whether it will be challenging enough to be a real game-changer.

This week WRAP and the British Retail Consortium announced plans to set up a cross-industry steering group comprising retailers, suppliers, academics, charities and government officials in an attempt to develop a more holistic approach to addressing product lifecycle assessment.

The forum has met with enthusiasm from those in the waste industry, but some observers have stressed that engagement needs to be wide-ranging with any thinking translated into clear action.

“Sustainability is now coming into a phase of radical impacts at high speed – any work not focussing on this should be taken off the table,” argued Jamie Burdett, a sustainability consultant.

“The outputs of this forum look a little woolly at the moment … will the senior decision-makers be at the meetings? These types of forums tend to struggle as they can be quite passive.”

This view was echoed by eco-designer Mark Shayler who said that both retailers and manufacturers need to be challenged as ultimately, they will need to change their business models.

“I’m a massive fan of keeping products alive as long as possible and the closed loop model, but businesses will need to change the way they charge for products, they will have to get their heads around how that works,” he said.

Shayler added that accountability was a key issue. “Where does responsibility for product design rest? The retailer or the original equipment manufacturer? It will depend on the product ultimately, but manufacturers need to come clean with their role in its environmental impact … they have the ability to change the specification of products.”

Burdett said it was important that discussions didn’t just focus on waste reduction or hotspot assessment, but move towards whole systems thinking.

“I am concerned about the terminology being used about the forum, it seems out of date. Nowhere does it mention circular economics or closed loop – it talks about life cycle analysis but is not connecting it to the wider picture.

“There is a huge opportunity for the UK to take the lead in circular economics … a forum like this needs to be driven by someone with passion and energy, are they going to push it far enough?”

Daniel O’ Connor, waste manager at Newcastle University, said he hoped the forum would knuckle down and get to grips with embedded carbon in products – “the elephant in the room”.

“During primary and secondary manufacture the average product generates 90 times its own weight in waste. Take IT, that laptop you just bought generated 4,000 times its own weight in waste during manufacture.”

He added: “Notwithstanding the technical complexities of working out the impact of products, how this can be illustrated and communicated into something that is useful for consumers will be a challenge.”

Maxine Perella

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