By Design: How Companies Can Make Safer Products

Moving out of problematic chemicals and driving the use of safer chemicals requires that a company create a comprehensive process for safer Product Design, one of EDF’s five Leadership Pillars for Safer Chemicals in the marketplace. Success in Product Design is complemented and facilitated by progress in the other key pillars. For example, progress in understanding the chemicals in the products a company makes or sells—Supply Chain Transparencysupports efforts to ensure continuous improvement, and an explicit Institutional Commitment to safer chemicals strengthens the likelihood of adoption and implementation of a Product Design process focused on safer products.

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How A Company Achieves Product Design Leadership

In a nutshell, the Product Design leadership pillar involves defining a process for the manufacture and sale of safer products. This includes four parts:

  • establishing specific objectives to move away from hazardous chemicals and to ensure the use of safer chemicals for both existing and new products;
  • determining a methodology for meeting objectives;
  • identifying the necessary resources; and,
  • developing a timeline to track progress, and to reevaluate and update elements of the Product Design

Setting Specific Objectives

A company sets specific, measurable objectives to meet the goals articulated in a corporate chemicals policy developed as part of the company’s Institutional Commitment to safer chemicals and products. Objectives should have timelines and be as quantitative as possible.

PCBs are an example of chemicals that are PBTs: they last for decades in the environment, accumulate up the food chain, and are toxic. PCBs have already been banned from commercial production. (Source: Seattle Post Intelligencer via Department of Ecology, State of Washington)

PCBs are an example of chemicals that are PBTs: they last for decades in the environment, accumulate up the food chain, and are toxic. PCBs have already been banned from commercial production.
(Source: Seattle Post Intelligencer via Department of Ecology, State of Washington)

For example, in its corporate policy a company may set a goal of selling products free of CMRs (carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants) or free of PBTs (persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals). Objectives to meet these goals might include a certain percentage reduction of a specific set of CMRs across all products by a specified date, or phasing out of a set of PBTs in certain product categories by a specified date and all product categories by a later specified date.

Companies with deep Supply Chain Transparency can capitalize on their knowledge of the chemicals contained in their products when defining metric driven objectives. Companies with limited knowledge of their product chemistries can initially rely on market surveillance information (e.g., consumer demand, competitor activities) to inform their objectives.

Developing a Methodology

A company's methodology establishes how it plans to achieve and measure progress against its specified objectives. At a minimum its methodology should include:

Defining a baseline – This involves conducting an inventory of the chemicals contained within a company’s product portfolio. Defining a baseline allows a company to measure progress towards meeting its goals. While baselines will vary depending on the degree of insight a company has into the chemistries contained in its product portfolio, some meaningful baseline metric must be established.

Determining an approach to chemical evaluation – This step involves identifying what chemical evaluation tools and decision framework a company will employ to meet its objectives. There are a number of available tools that characterize the hazards and risks of different chemicals. A company’s decision framework provides guidance for how that chemical information is applied to product design and sale. For example, if a chemical receives a GreenScreen (one available tool) benchmark score of 1 (the lowest rating), a company’s decision framework might restrict that chemical from current or future products.

GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals is an example tool for chemical evaluation – benchmark scores are applied to chemicals following hazard assessment. (Source: Clean Production Action)

GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals is an example tool for chemical evaluation – benchmark scores are applied to chemicals following hazard assessment. (Source: Clean Production Action)

Establishing data needs and performance metrics to track progress – This part of the methodology involves identifying what data and corresponding performance metrics are needed to track progress against objectives. Examples of data needs include the volume of a particular target chemical represented in a company’s product portfolio or the number of suppliers using that target chemical. Examples of performance metrics used to track progress include changes in the volume or number of suppliers using a target chemical over a certain period of time. These data and performance metrics are critical for measuring progress and re-evaluating goals and objectives (i.e., do the goals need to be more ambitious; have we selected the best means for reaching our objectives).

Determining Roles and Resources

Successful implementation of safer Product Design requires the identification and determination of roles and responsibilities of internal staff and external stakeholders.

There are many internal business functions typically involved in a company’s existing product development process that should likewise be involved in the pursuit of safer Product Design objectives. Examples include research and development, marketing, and procurement. Other business functions, such as sustainability and regulatory compliance, also play key roles. The new responsibilities of each business function will need to be clarified. For example, the sustainability team may be responsible for setting objectives and evaluating progress, while the procurement team may be responsible for communicating new expectations to suppliers.

Similarly, a company should identify those outside the business that can support implementation of the Product Design process. Examples of such outside entities include tier one and tier two suppliers, professional societies and trade associations, and trusted advisors such as consultants, tool developers, and public interest groups.  Consultants may help determine the details of a company’s Product Design methodology; tool developers may support the evaluation of objectives; and suppliers may work directly on potential product redesign.

Importantly, a company needs to identify the necessary resources for implementing its Product Design process. Resources can range from professional training, additional staffing or reallocation of staff time to contractors.

Establishing an Evaluation Timeline

Evaluating the effectiveness and progress of the Product Design process is a cycle: Each step should be set at regular intervals and the process begins again as new objectives are set.

Evaluating the effectiveness and progress of the Product Design process is a cycle: Each step should be set at regular intervals and the process begins again as new objectives are set.

Last, but not least, a company needs to develop a timeline for evaluating progress against stated objectives and for assessing the overall effectiveness of its Product Design process for the manufacture and sale of safer products. The timeline should indicate the intervals at which progress reports will be generated (e.g., quarterly) as well as how often an overall review of the Product Design process will be performed (e.g., biannually).

Routine progress reports, based on performance metrics outlined in the Product Design methodology, are incredibly important for identifying and understanding successes and obstacles to meeting objectives. They provide opportunities to learn what’s working and what’s not, to identify major obstacles and challenges to adoption and implementation, and to reveal unexpected successes.  All of these learnings support the re-evaluation and potential updating of Product Design objectives over time.

Why Make the Commitment?

Admittedly, safer Product Design takes commitment and work, but it is well worth the investment. Well-planned execution provides a clear roadmap for meeting institutional goals on safer chemicals, helps companies avoid regrettable and costly decisions, and brings to light innovation opportunities. Further, if progress reports are regularly and publicly shared, the information can help build consumer confidence in a company’s brand.

In the end, backing up an Institutional Commitment to safer chemicals with a strong Product Design process distinguishes corporate leaders for safer chemicals in the marketplace — helping identify those companies not just talking the talk, but making real, measurable progress towards safer products.

Resources

The OECD Substitution and Alternatives Assessment Toolbox: A Tool for Safer Chemicals in Products

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