Building Trust on a Scale that Matters
Product stewardship is increasingly multifaceted and quickly evolving. Although the profession takes different forms in different companies, product stewards have at least one fundamental responsibility in common: “I think building trust today is becoming the most important goal of product stewardship,” said Darius Sabalilunas, associate director for global product stewardship at Procter & Gamble, during a keynote speech at Product Stewardship 2017. Given their interaction with many different business functions, product stewards are best suited to make positive impacts on their businesses and society on a “scale that matters,” he added.
Historically, product stewardship has its roots in regulatory compliance. Companies responded to new regulations concerning product safety. The rise of lifecycle assessment (LCA) and changing consumer attitudes prompted the shift to a proactive, end-to-end response. Now, risk assessments are conducted before new products are even synthesized, followed by systems that gather data from the market after the product is launched, which offer feedback for improving future assessments. Instead of approaching sustainability and safety as compliance activities, companies now tie these initiatives to business opportunities.
For example, P&G ran an LCA in 2000 to measure the energy use of every product they make. “What this showed to us is that, by far, consumer use of heated water in laundry was the biggest contributor to the company’s energy footprint,” said Sabalilunas. That insight led to the development of cold water detergents.
Looking to the future, Sabalilunas suggested there are three challenges that product stewards face, including:
- The Earth’s natural resource constraints to economic growth. Citing a WWF report, Sabililunas said we would need another planet by 2020 to maintain current consumption levels of natural resources. “Consumption and growth are exactly the kind of things that took us to this situation,” he said. “The only way to address this is by adopting circular economy models, which focus on preservation, reuse and recycling of resources.”
- A growing distrust in the credibility of scientific knowledge. He noted that making consumers feel safe is just as important as making the products safe, because the role of science in the decision-making process is changing.
- A radically higher bar for corporate responsibility and transparency. “Customers want to know everything about our supply chains,” says Sabalilunas. He said companies like P&G are adopting policies to be open, by listing ingredients they’ve committed not to use in products. The challenge is that ingredient lists like these tend to grow due to NGO pressures. They can become difficult to manage and potentially create a barrier to innovation.
Although these are the challenges that keep product stewards awake at night, Sabalilunas framed them in a positive light: “I’m presenting those as challenges, but they are also business opportunities,” he said, because some companies will figure out how to gain an advantage.”
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