A Guide To Sustainable Materials In Product Marketing
Sustainable products aren’t just the future: they’re the present.
Our collective environmental impact has grown from a fringe issue into a primary consumer motivation in recent years, with sustainability topics featuring in global market research firm Euromonitor’s top consumer trends for both 2019 and 2020.
From “reuse revolutionaries” to “clean air everywhere”, products are now expected to not just mitigate, but in some cases prevent, global warming and waste.
Product-based marketing is all about communicating your brand and its values to an audience without saying a word. Your end users are not only likely to be more impressed by a commitment to sustainability, but could be thoroughly unimpressed by a lack thereof. Don’t believe us? Research by Oxfam found that 62% of consumers would disengage from a brand if its products were ‘detrimental to the environment’.
There are plenty of ways you can make your products more sustainable, it’s important to know your lingo before you dive in. Introducing Zagwear’s comprehensive eco-glossary of terminology you need to know to conduct an effective sustainable product-based marketing campaign.
In this post, we’ll help you tell your recyclable from your reusable, your fair trade from your vegan and so much more.
What is a sustainable product?
If you’ve ever read a product description which states ‘this item has been made from sustainable materials’ you probably know that this is, generally speaking, a good thing. But the chances are you haven’t thought about what this actually means.
What makes something sustainable?
When we talk about sustainability, we often refer to it as having three main pillars:
- The environmental pillar
- The social pillar
- The economic pillar
More informally known as people, planet and profits, if something is classed as sustainable, it means that it provides an environmental, social or economic benefit in some way, while protecting the environment and health of the public from initial extraction to final disposal.
The environmental pillar
Often given the biggest focus of the three, the environmental pillar is a focus for many people looking to reduce the size of their carbon footprint, their packaging waste, energy usage and more.
In commercial settings, companies have found that placing a focus on the environmental pillar with initiatives such as zero waste, can lead to a positive financial impact too.
The social pillar
This one comes down to the impact of your actions on society, both close-to-home and on a global scale.
In a commercial setting, being sustainable might mean treating workers fairly, providing a safe environment, condemning child labour.
The economic pillar
For a business to be sustainable and continue to operate, it needs to be profitable.
However, profit is not the main focus here, but the actions of a company which allow it to be so, such as good corporate governance and risk management.
How to tell if a product is sustainable
But just because a product claims to be sustainable doesn’t mean you should take it verbatim. The reality is, unless you’ve witnessed the production process first hand, it’s difficult to know that a product is as sustainable as it makes out.
With that said though, there are ways to educate yourself on the sustainability of an item:
- Don’t buy into branding: Lots of companies like to give the look of being sustainable, even if they’re not. This is often referred to as ‘greenwashing’.
- Keep an eye out for certifications: Third party organisations can offer a reliable judgement of a brand’s sustainability. Some of the most established include PETA, Sedex and OEKO-TEX.
- Do your research: If a brand has taken leaps to be sustainable, the chances are they’ll want you to know it. There should be a section on the website that explains exactly what they’ve done to help the sustainability pillars.
Are all sustainable products equal?
Now you know more the vast areas that sustainability covers, you’ll probably be able to at least partly answer this one for yourself.
But no—not all sustainable products are equal. Some products might focus on one particular pillar in detail, others might spread their efforts equally over all three, some may do one small thing that makes their product count as ‘sustainable’.
That’s why—when it comes to finding truly sustainable products—it’s vital that you do your research and know the key things to look out for.
What does it all mean?
But a product rarely just labels itself as sustainable. Usually, if a brand has gone above and beyond to be more environmentally, socially or economically sustainable, they tend to give a little more insight as to why. But this information isn’t always consumer-friendly. Whether it be a pen made from recycled materials or drinkware which is recyclable, understanding what all the terms mean can leave you quite frankly confused.
Here’s a simple definition for some of the main terms used by brands when marketing their products as sustainable:
Recycled – A product which is made of recycled materials is one which contains materials which have been used before. They have undergone a process which has repurposed them for use in a new product.
NEWCHURCH TOTE BAG:
Recyclable – A recyclable item is one which can undergo a process to be used again, for a new product. This product would therefore be recycled.
Reusable – A reusable product is any that can be used more than once.
CORK COFFEE TUMBLER:
Biodegradable – An item which is classed as biodegradable is one which can decay naturally in landfill and in a way which is not harmful to the environment.
SKEYE BIO PEN:
Compostable – Compostable items are able to disintegrate into natural elements in a compost environment, leaving no toxicity in the soil. This typically must occur in about 90 days.
UK-Made – Products are deemed to have been manufactured in the country in which they last underwent a treatment or process resulting in a substantial change. Products made in the UK are those which underwent their final processes in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Organic – Organic usually refers to food products grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. However, cosmetics and personal care items, textiles and alcohol can all be organic too.
BC054 ORGANIC CAP:
Vegan – Vegan products are those which are manufactured using or containing no animal byproducts.
BELLUNO (VEGAN LEATHER) CARD WALLET:
Fair trade – Trade between companies in developed countries and producers in developing countries in which fair prices are paid to the producers.
We all know a couple of materials generally considered more eco-friendly alternatives to things like single-use plastics and other highly processed options, but there’s also some sustainable materials that are better than others.
The bamboo plant is an evergreen perennial in the subfamily Bambusoideae of the grass family Poaceae. Bamboo can be used to produce a wide range of products, including straws, socks and cutlery.
Bamboo is widely considered to be a sustainable material for product manufacture as it can help prevent soil erosion. In the areas where bamboo plants are grown, soil is regenerated and the risks of future erosion are greatly reduced.
Bamboo also grows at an astonishing rate, and can be effectively farmed without the death of the crop. As such, masses of bamboo can be harvested for product manufacture without causing harm to the environment.
With this said, bamboo isn’t always as sustainable as it might seem. Tests conducted by the German consumer stakeholder, Stiftung Warentest, have discovered potentially harmful chemicals on products, as well as instances of ‘fake advertising promises’, in relation to origin and environmental impact.
Natural bamboo is undoubtedly a sustainable material, however certain processes can make it less so. Manufacturers of bamboo products which are marketed as sustainable need to follow good manufacturing practice to avoid the harmful processes. It’s also important to check the composition of a bamboo product as, in some cases, the bamboo is mixed with unsustainable materials like plastic. In a bamboo tumbler which is 10% bamboo and 90% plastic, the manufacturing process is actually more harmful to the environment than the same process for a standard plastic or metal alternative.
It’s hard to tell recycled plastic from single-use, but the impact they have on the environment is worlds apart. We’re now using 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago, and it’s vital that we find a sound alternative to single-use options that take hundreds of years to decompose.
Recycled plastic offers a solution: treating and transforming old plastic items into new ones.
But how is plastic recycled?
- Sorted by polymer type
- Made into new products
Although the process of making old plastic items into new products takes processes which will increase the manufacturing carbon footprint, this is often still a better option than using single-use plastics which are manufactured, used once and then buried in landfill.
Wood has the potential to be one of the most sustainable materials out there. With very little manufacture and treatment necessary, it provides a strong and versatile material with a very small carbon footprint.
But if you don’t want to support illegal logging or encourage deforestation, you need to be aware of how to buy sustainable wood. Sustainable wood is that which is harvested in a managed forest, ensuring that there is little to no lasting damage to the ecosystem and habitat.
Wood is all around us, so there’s no reason not to go local either. When it comes to sourcing wood for products, where it comes from can greatly impact its overall carbon footprint and sustainability. As a general rule, the less transportation, the better. Sourcing as locally as possible can save on transportation, such as air miles, and reduce resource usage to get the product from A to B.
But it’s not just where the wood comes from that you need to take note of. It’s also how it has been treated. Like bamboo, wood sometimes undergoes processes which can hinder its overall sustainability.
To avoid unintentionally sourcing unsustainable wood for your products, it’s important that all your wood is FSC certified. The FSC approval ensures that products are not only renewable, but also that the wood you’re buying is from a responsibly managed forest area.
Polylactic Acid (PLA), is a plastic unlike any other. Instead of unsustainable, single use materials, PLA is a plant-based thermoplastic polymer derived from renewable sources, such as sugar cane or corn starch.
Because PLA is made from biomass, it’s categorised as a bioplastic, making it a far more sustainable option than regular plastic manufactured using petroleum.
PLA plastics are particularly beneficial because they offer the same strength and robust nature, its cost-effective production and its biodegradability, which is a mere 6-24 months, compared with the hundreds of years needed for regular plastic to break down.
Many products derived from trees are responsible for deforestation and harming the entire ecosystem, but cork isn’t one of them. But, in reality, cork is one of the most sustainable materials available, and has been used by mankind since the Roman Empire. Cork bark can be harvested through stipping while causing absolutely no harm to the tree itself.
Although the demand for cork products has increased since 27 BC, the harvesting practices haven’t. Stripped from the tree using skill and man-power, there’s a very small carbon footprint in cork manufacture.
What’s more, there’s very little processing needed to take the cork from tree to product:
- Cork planks are stacked and boiled for at least one hour, allowing cork cells to fully expand into a tight honeycomb-like structure.
- The cork is cut into the desired shape, ready for further manufacture.
And that’s it! The lifecycle of cork is a highly sustainable one too. Once a cork product has reached the end of its life, the cork can be recycled, reprocessed and reused for any other product, from a pin board to a bag!
If you’re looking for a sustainable option for your products, Zagwear offers a range of options which can help you do your bit and meet the demands of your audience.
Which product type is most sustainable?
This isn’t something which can be answered easily, and there’s been a lot of debate over whether things like reusable totes are better for the environment than regular plastic bags. The sustainability of a product is determined by a number of factors, including manufacturing process, product life, product disposal. But the reality is, there’s no easy way to determine ‘which is best’, with life-cycle assessments honing in on a number of areas, from manufacture to climate change impact.
And while some products can be categorised as one of the ‘good’ terms for sustainability, others tick off a number of them. Without the ability to calculate the carbon footprint of the entire product life cycle, from production and transportation to disposal, a general rule to follow would be the more boxes (in terms of recycled, recyclable, biodegradable etc.) a product ticks, the better.
But remember, no matter how sustainable a product can seem, you need to take into account its geographical journey, and add this factor into the larger equation. Think about it—if a sustainable product which ticks all the boxes is flown thousands of miles during its manufacturing process, it isn’t all that sustainable, is it?
- When choosing a material for your products, think about the overall journey it takes from manufacture to end of life, not just the materials used.
- Do your research—if something says it’s sustainable, look out for the signs which affirm this is true. From methods used to manufacture the product to the composite makeup, all the information will be there, you just need to look out for it!
- Give your consumers what they want. Sustainable items are top of every wish list right now; if you want products which tick all the boxes, you need to be as sustainable as possible.
Want expert help that will ensure you meet the demands of your audience while still reaching business targets? Zagwear is one of the world’s leading promotional marketing agencies providing an unmatched combination of breakthrough innovation, strategic business processes and flawless execution, delivered globally.
To find out more about how Zagwear can help your brand get to grips with sustainability, get in touch with us now.