Sustainability: looking after what we have, and protecting our future
4 May 2022
“In nature there is no such thing as waste. In nature nothing is wasted; everything is recycled.” - David Suzuki.
During the ongoing dialogue about sustainability, there is often talk of a product’s end of life, and whether it is biodegradable, compostable, or reusable in some format. But what if a product starts to break down before you’ve finished with it? Or if it never breaks down, and stays on the planet forever? Whether or not that’s a desirable outcome depends on the product and circumstances.
It is probably time for us to go back to thinking about durability as a good thing and taking responsibility for choosing products which are fit for purpose – and not just for convenience and disposability.
We learned from our grandparents that they’d had to “make good and mend” their clothes and their furniture, and they showed us things they’d hand-crafted and which have been handed down over generations. I guess the “vintage” trend stems from the ethos of reusing and repairing old things, but let’s think about the impact on the environment if this niche trend were to grow faster than demand for brand new products. What a different world we would inhabit, if we considered our purchases in this way – if durability were the norm, instead of disposability.
Conversations about sustainability and environmental responsibility often move on to the subject of plastic – and it is rarely held up as an example of good practise. But perhaps we should think again.
Plastic is an incredibly strong and versatile material, made using resource efficient processes, enabling products to be made in an energy efficient way. Products made from plastic are intended to last forever; products such as automotive or aerospace parts, solar panels, or artificial limbs. Perhaps we should consider human behaviour as the problem, not the durability of the material.
Let’s take, for example, the much-maligned plastic carrier bag. Nobody wants to see them in landfill or washed up on beaches, but they are energy efficient to produce and can be re-used multiple times before being recycled to produce more of the same – again, in an energy efficient way. The products themselves are durable and energy efficient.
The problem is human behaviour, not the material. An alternative to the plastic carrier bag might be a new cotton shopping bag instead – but huge volumes of water are needed to grow cotton fibre and to process and finish cotton fabric. Perhaps societies who live in the locations where cotton is grown would prefer to have that fresh, clean water to drink.
The point is, we need to consider the full lifecycle of a product before deciding how sustainable a product is or isn’t – and very quickly we realise that the lifecycle of a product, and therefore its sustainability, depends on consumers and how quickly products are discarded.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains that waste and pollution should be regarded as design flaws, and not as inevitable by-products of the things we make and that by changing our mindset and harnessing new materials and technology we can ensure that waste and pollution are designed out of the process.
Another way of looking at the problem is to imitate nature. According to Trees For Life, a UK charity whose mission is to rewild the Scottish Highlands:
“Decomposition and decay may appear to be unpleasant processes from our human perspective. However, they are vital for the functioning of ecosystems. Just like compost in a garden, they provide essential nutrients for the growth of new organisms. They are a key aspect of the cyclical processes that maintain all life on Earth. A renewed appreciation of their importance will help humans to protect and sustain ecosystems. This appreciation may even provide inspiration for alternatives to the unsustainable unlimited growth model that drives human culture today.”
The Woodland Trust explains:
“Trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines. Like great carbon sinks, woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. They do this through photosynthesis. They also fight the cruel effects of a changing climate.”
SMEs and Sustainability
There are several ways SMEs can embrace sustainability. Typically, businesses will go through life cycle developments as part of product creation and review. Embedding tools and methods into product design processes which highlight areas of waste and waste recovery can enable more sustainable choices to be made. Alongside this, SMEs can work with their supply chains to ensure all elements of the manufacturing process are considered.
When starting out, considering sustainability and the impact of product design and manufacturing can be daunting. However, support is available locally to help businesses get started. Reach out to our Eco-Innovation team today.
Belinda Carp, Innovation Advisor
Belinda has extensive experience working with SMEs across a range of industry sectors. She specialises in helping companies to develop and implement their innovation strategies and to communicate their message clearly to businesses and consumers.
Passionate about the Environment, Belinda is a Climate Reality Leader with published material in research, recognised sector publication and blogs.