As concerns about sustainability are increasingly shaping consumer behavior in today’s highly competitive business environment, companies are growing more interested in what makes a product green, and how to make their own products as sustainable as possible.
Several criteria have been proposed for different industries in the quest to measure "greenness" and guide companies towards responsible behavior, but there are no widely accepted standards or recommendations for best practices.
According to Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, Head of Business & Industry Relations at WWF International, there are two distinct views on the subject. The first one states that products need to clearly meet a need. If a product is unnecessary, it cannot be considered sustainable at all. The second viewpoint is more common, relating to the design and the use of the product itself. The list of issues to consider is long and often industry specific, including material usage, infrastructure and embedded energy, sustainable sourcing, recycling and refurbishment, energy consumption, and product lifetime.
Jeanrenaud especially stresses life cycle thinking: "Nature does not do dumping; there is a continual cycle going on for everything. Humans are breaking this natural cycle. When too much is taken out of the environment and nothing is coming back in, we end up with a serious imbalance. In order to reach sustainability, the triple bottomline of economic, social and environmental factors needs to be brought into balance."
A truly green product would thus need to mimic the way the nature works, fulfilling all the possible criteria and not damaging the environment in any way. This is highly unlikely for most consumer products. The problem with industrial processes is that they are often based on the extraction of non-renewable resources. This leads to the fact that most industries can never be totally sustainable, as long as they continue to do so.
However, there are many shades of green. Companies can be expected to do everything they can to reduce their impact on the environment. Although the result may not be fully sustainable, the products will be "greener" and their negative impacts minimized. This is what most consumers are increasingly demanding.
Even so, the concept of a green product is ambiguous. "Defining greenness is a complicated issue because of the difficulty of valuing tradeoffs. It is very difficult to weigh the relative impacts of different factors, in order to determine the best practices from the environmental viewpoint", says Jeanrenaud. How does one compare air quality to recyclability? Additionally, it might be that while the products themselves are not completely green, they help reduce overall environmental impact. For example, mobile technology can help reduce the need for international travel. However, the product itself may be far from green, unless special attention is paid to other aspects of sustainability.
One reason why companies worry about their stakeholders' conception of green is that they don’t want their environmental communications to be seen as greenwashing. If a company’s environmental actions are not sufficient, sincere and credible, there is a risk that the impact on consumer confidence will actually be an inverse one. Considering the lack of accepted standards, it is safer and more truthful to talk about the features that make the product greener, rather than claiming the product is entirely green.
Eco-labels have been used in the hope of gaining consumer confidence, but for obvious reasons they can sometimes be misleading. Jeanrenaud claims that "unless a label is backed by international NGOs, it will not have credibility. This invalidates self-certification. Ideally it should not be the NGOs setting the standards for corporations but the government, and the NGOs adding their support."
In either case, there seems to be an obvious need for a new level trust in the business world, and more and more companies are finally aiming to be seen as trustworthy. A more sustainable business world is possible, and many are realizing that there is a clear business case for sustainability.