The New Product Stewardship Challenge

Product stewardship has been an increasing focus of regulators, producers, consumers, and activist groups the world over. So much so that the depth and breadth of data points have now vastly grown. This has led to an increasing number of hurdles for those making and selling products. In order to tackle this new challenge, companies will have to learn how to harvest the growing amount of data to stay on top of the competition.

An expanding information matrix

As market research firm Verdantix recently analyzed, this new product stewardship challenge requires “organizations to organize, analyze and report an expanding information matrix”:

  • Product composition and disposal, such as the EU’s WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive or the US SEC Conflict Minerals Rule.
  • Declaring and managing the chemical content of products, such as GHS (Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, HazCom in the US),  REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) in the EU, RoHS 2 (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) and TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act).
  • Avoiding future liabilities, such as avoiding ill-understood side effects of chemical ingredients on human and environmental health. Remember asbestos?  Total costs of asbestos litigation in the USA alone will eventually reach $200 to $275 billion.

Simple products, complex consequences

Even making simple products can have complex consequences. Consider plastics, which are used in packaging or toys.  Their obvious utility is hampered by their potential toxicity or waste.

Although a product may just have a few parts or process steps, design choices matter every time: Is it advisable to pick cheaper parts that are potentially less compliant? Is it OK to use somewhat more toxic ingredients that are less energy intensive?  Or use energy efficient materials that are less recyclable? The combined impact of design decisions is significant: revenue, costs, compliance, environmental and even brand impacts can be at stake.

With complex products, larger organizations and global supply chains, things get more challenging. There is often a “data disconnect” between the design stage, where most impacts are set, and what happens “downstream”, throughout the manufacturing process or indeed a product’s entire life-cycle.

Avoiding unintended consequences requires the availability of information early on. However, product data has many facets and multiple sources. Where data originates, where it is used and where its market-facing profile is ultimately published, typically happens in different places.  In today’s globalized supply chains, resources turn into final products over many steps. This results in loss of data fidelity, latency, traceability and often duplicate work. This, in turn, means sub-optimal decisions that take more time to make. Meanwhile, growing competition, increased regulation, investor disclosures, and customer pressures mount.  As market research firm Verdantix affirms: “Technology, regulation and growing awareness are adding complexity to the Product Stewardship landscape”.

Room for innovation

That has given rise to a number of interesting new initiatives. For example, to make a difference in the Architecture, Building and Construction sector, Google supports the Quartz Common Products Database. “Buildings are where we spend most of our lives, yet we know little about the materials used in construction — how they impact the environment and how they might impact our long-term health”. The Quartz project provides access to open data that promotes the transparency of building materials and products. Drew Wenzel, Google’s Campus Design Technical Specialist sums up the starting point well: “Using healthy products and materials is integral to our mission but vetting commonly used building products is very complex, consumes a substantial amount of resources, and does not scale well.“

Time for a new, more efficient and effective approach? We certainly think so.