What makes a product sustainable?

What makes a product sustainable?

This is a genuine question that someone asked me last week; ‘what makes a product sustainable?’ Apart from wondering ‘how long have you got?’ it really got me thinking. When we talk about sustainable products, what do we actually mean?

Are we referencing:

  • the materials or ingredients used
  • the packaging
  • the miles travelled
  • the energy used to make it
  • the type of energy used to produce
  • how much water or other natural materials are wasted in the production process
  • where it was sourced from
  • how it was sourced
  • if it was ethically sourced and made
  • what we do with it once it is no longer needed or useful?

In an ideal world I’m supposing that it’s all of those things, however, in reality it is a challenge to find a product which meets all of these goals.

There is a lot of talk about Greenwashing, which can be deliberately misleading. This can make it tricky to find those products which really are sustainable. There are also a lot of people and businesses simply trying to navigate a way through all of the noise and showcase great products in a way that makes sense. Trying to make a difference in any small way they can.

Challenges

It’s quite a challenge sourcing products which meet all of the above criteria and often we have to make choices about what is most important, something which I know we all do in our everyday lives. Every item produced has a carbon footprint, it also has a legacy, so for me it’s always about trying to reduce waste and reuse as much as possible. I always lean towards recycled materials for products as these cover the need to reuse and save waste, for example things like our pan scrubs, dishcloths and woven baskets are all made using recycled cotton and jute. There are a plethora of materials already in the world, so there is no real need to make from new ones. Sometimes easier said than done, as it’s not always possible to find makers who use recycled materials and there are challenges to reusing certain materials too.

Another question that comes up often is around whether plastic is a good or bad material to use. This is just as complicated to unpick, if it’s single use, then I think we can all agree, that it just doesn’t make any sense to use it, especially when there are so many reusable options out there. But what about reusable plastics? This is such a huge area as you have to dig deep into how many times plastic items can be recycled at the end of use, if at all, how it is produced compared to the compostable, biodegradable and reusable alternatives and also the issue around micro plastics comes into play.

The information often isn’t easily accessible. Simply working out what the recycling symbols mean can be challenge enough for me! We also often think that materials like glass are better, but they can also pose their own issues, with recycling not always an option and seemingly reuse is not widely established. We also have to consider ethical practices; are the makers being treated fairly and paid a fair price for their work in making products, are producers being paid a fair price for the raw materials? That makes tracking the provenance of a product a really important part of their sustainability credentials.

A truly sustainable product will be environmentally friendly throughout their whole lifecycle, from the way the raw materials are harnessed right the way through to what happens when they are no longer needed or are useable.

What to look for

Before we all get despondent about it all and wonder what can do when it is so complicated, I’ll share some of my key tips for choosing ‘sustainable’ products:

  • Choose reusables
  • Shop local
  • Switch to recycled materials
  • Question what happens to the product at the end of its use
  • Is the product replacing something that is single use?
  • Look for natural materials and ingredients
  • Select products with longevity in mind
  • Look at accreditations that any product might have acquired

Nothing is perfect

Key thing to remember is that nothing is perfect…yet! Thinking about what we use and what we need before buying new, and opting for recycled materials is definitely a great place to start. Thinking about the lifecycle of the product will also help to determine how sustainable it really is. Ask questions, from manufacturers and makers, shop keepers and business owners, they should be happy to help and find out information if they aren’t sure of the answer.

There are some accreditations and differing standards that products and businesses can apply for to make it easier to assess, these can vary throughout the world though, so be sure to look up any product marks to understand what these mean.

Further information on accreditations:

So, there isn’t an easy answer to ‘what makes a product sustainable’, there is the ideal standard, which is something I look for in the products I source, and also there is a mixture of sustainable properties, which I weigh up when sourcing.

How do you find navigating the various sustainable options? Get in touch and let us know.

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