Being strategic about your material choices and why the perfect sustainable material does not exist.
By Sandra Castañeda-Elena
In many occasions, while I am training or in the middle of a strategic session with a particular brand starting its sustainability journey, people raise their hand and say: ‘So what is the right material?’ As if there would be a miracle fiber that would sort out all plights. ‘Which ones are good and which are bad?’ As if there would be a straight line separating heaven from hell. ‘Where is the list?’ Meaning, ‘please give me the magic recipe of universally admitted safe choices, we all know it’s somewhere…’
I have learned to come out of these kinds of questions with some grace by now. But it’s not easy to make people understand it’s a little more complex than that, especially when they are raving to start doing the right thing right then and there.
First of all, one has to understand there are different environmental lenses through which fibers are assessed. To stick to the most commonly used by the industry, these are: energy use and GHG’s emissions, water use, waste, human toxicity, environmental toxicity, land use and biodiversity (see OIA’s Eco-Index). To Therefore, a company’s focus lenses would determine its materials strategy significantly.
But that is not the only factor. We like to use a set of additional steps and criteria to make fiber choices easier for designers, buyers, product developers and managers alike:
· Calculate your fiber usage and footprint and ask yourself questions like: What materials do we use the most? What are the key environmental impacts and risks?
· Understand your options: What you can do to influence your current footprint and turn it into a positive impact.
· Set your strategy and your own fiber roadmap considering, amongst other: your product sustainability vision, fiber volumes, availability or preferred options, your products’ characteristics and price structures, consumer demands, as well as your brand identity and your overall business and sustainability strategy.
Take into account that your suppliers are key when trying to increase your environmental performance: choosing the right supplier is as important as picking the right fiber.
Think about low hanging fruits as well as medium and long term opportunities and goals.And don’t forget to identify how you are going to verify your claims and measure progress.
· And finally, define how you would like to communicate about your program – is it at product, corporate or retail level? This decision might also influence your strategy setting process.
There is no one size fits all solution, but there are ways to develop sound material strategies and take wise, coherent decisions without going nuts.
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