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Product sustainability myth-busting

30 October 2019 – As applications open for the Postgraduate Diploma and Certificate in Sustainable Business, Programme Manager Emma Fromberg debunks the myths hampering the development of sustainable products.

Every so often I get approached at a conference by attendees working in a wide range of industries and sectors asking why it feels like an impossible challenge to get buy-in within their company for implementing sustainable product ideas. In order to answer that question, we first need to do some sustainability myth-busting…

Myth #1: Sustainability starts with marketing

Gerrard Street
Gerrard Street designed their headphones for disassembly to ensure quick and easy repair. Image by Gerrard Street.

A successful marketing campaign can highlight the value of sustainable products and contribute to increasing their sales. However, the legwork on making the product truly sustainable needs to happen first. Taking sustainability as a starting point in the product development process, rather than something that is implemented at the final stages, could unleash new business potential.

Gerrard Street, for example, began by questioning the underlying logic of the existing product, in order to design a more sustainable solution without significantly changing the item itself. The company provides modular designed leasable headphones, offering a subscription model which provides free of charge upgrade and repair. This approach ensures that the user always has headphones that are working whilst remaining the overall owner of the product. Through their design, which is designed for disassembly, they can quickly deliver spare parts to the user when something is broken. This business model reduces the waste created when headphones are thrown away due to mechanical errors and technological upgrades.


Myth #2: We can just make it easier to recycle

Walter Stahel
Walter Stahel sets out a clear business case for selling performance over products in his book “The Performance Economy” (Stahel, 2010) Image CC BY NC SA 4.0 by TU Delft OpenCourseWare.

There is more to sustainability then simply "closing the loop" by recycling a product’s materials. Most value of a product is not captured on a material level, but on a product level - even though there are a few exceptions (Hollander, 2018). This highlights the case for keeping the integrity of the product for as long as possible. In practice, this would mean following the Inertia Principle (Stahel, 2010) and designing products with the intention to reuse and repair them, therefore keeping the integrity of the product as a whole. If repair is not possible, then refurbishment and remanufacturing should be the next step to keep the integrity of each of the components that make up the product. Eventually, the Inertia Principe suggests recycling through the recovery of materials at the end of a product’s use. The challenge for a business is in keeping the product at high value for as long as possible, before considering recycling. 

There are sectors where product life extension can be a challenge, such as for some products in the healthcare sector, where infection control is a priority. Recycling or incineration is currently a go-to solution – making the chances of contamination low. This year at the RSA Student Design Awards, the winners have proven through the Personal Patient Pack that when coordinated with already-existing cleaning systems, it is possible to re-design single use healthcare products into multi-use ones, reducing the amount of waste produced per patient or treatment.  

Myth #3: We can simply re-use product materials

When a product (after prolonging its use for as long as possible) reaches its end of use and the materials will be recycled, the company could consider re-using these materials in their new products. Using recycled content in products often brings up the question: “What is actually in the material?”. Material suppliers add chemicals, dyes and additives to materials to create certain properties, which is often captured in their intellectual property and not shared throughout the supply chain. This makes answering the question about what is in the material, complicated and labour-intensive. 

In this podcast that I hosted for the Disruptive Innovation Festival, I interviewed William McDonough and experts from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute about anything you need to know about making positive material choices.

An interesting alternative materials concept was developed in the Adidas mono-material running shoe, which is made of one single material for all elements of the shoe. It was a challenge for the research and design team to find the right material that can be used for the sole of the shoe as well as for the so-called “upper”. They eventually found a material (thermoplastic polyurethane) that can fulfil these different features, by using the material in a different structure or form. At the end of use, the shoe doesn’t need to be taken apart and separated, because all parts of the product can be processed together.

Myth #4: It is only about waste

Tungsten, a critical material neccesary in smartphones, is mined in Rwanda. Image CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Fairphone.
The challenge is to make the economy, in a more systemic way, work better for business, society and the environment. Looking only at designing out waste, misses out on an opportunity to build-in more benefits within product design. By focusing on the benefits, a sustainable product could not only create positive impact for the environment level, but also on a social level – which is often overlooked.

Fairphone, the brainchild of MSt in Sustainability Leadership alumnus Sean Ansett, is an example of a company that built in multiple benefits. Fairphone did not only design a phone that can be disassembled and repaired to increase its lifecycle and reduce waste; it also built a community of users that can help each other in replacements and repairs at a local level. In addition, the critical materials that are necessary in some components of the phone such as the printed circuited boards, the battery and the screen are responsibly mined as the organisation has embedded traceability to source throughout its supply chain.

So why does it seem impossible to start the transition towards a sustainable product? Changing a business strategy from a current and unsustainable trajectory towards a sustainable one could feel as a risky move. There is no off-the-shelf solution or silver bullet and most solutions are highly contextual. Yet, a strong business rationale can be made when one stops falling for some of the sustainability myths. Through strong leadership and a deep understanding of the systemic nature of the problem (and the solution space), sustainability has the potential to play a key role in the success of a business. I would wholeheartedly encourage everyone to engage in this challenge and exciting opportunity to reshape our future. As Kate Raworth said at last year's Disruptive Innovation Festival: “this is the greatest adventure of our time."

Applications are now open for the MSt in Sustainability Leadership and the Postgraduate Diploma and Certificate in Sustainable Business. Find out more and apply.

About the author

emma fromberg

Emma Fromberg has a background in industrial design engineering and is currently the Course Director of the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business - value chains stream. This course teaches participants how they can drive sustainability across an organisation’s supply chain and the markets in which it operates by creating value across the full life cycle of the product (from its conception to its end use).

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Disruptive Innovation Festival (2018) Podcast: Safe & Circular By Design: Making Positive Materials Choices 

Disruptive Innovation Festival (2018) Documentary: System Reset 

Hollander, M.D. (2018). Design for Managing Obsolescence: A Design Methodology for Preserving Product Integrity in a Circular Economy. PhD TU Delft.

Stahel, W. (2010). The performance economy. Springer.