Brice Bunner

3M’s sustainability mandate puts the right thinking in place


Image ©: The Business JournalsWhen it comes to sourcing—as far as manufacturing is concerned—the products we consume are too often made from virgin materials, at the expense of the planet, and in unsustainable ways. It is for this reason that we bang the drum of circular economics so hard. But the most recent mandate from 3M might be an equally good way to change how much our consumption affects the earth.

Where should sustainability start?

As a sustainable ITAD company, much of what we do is handle the aftermath of a consumption problem in the most environmentally stable way. Basically, someone or some company has already purchased the devices we handle sustainably. And though we can use the refurbished devices to curb future consumption, the problem we are always up against is that Americans simply consume too much.

So, is handling waste responsibly the best way to be sustainable? For a manufacturer, the answer is no. Overall, waste treatment—whether spent materials, dirty water, or end-of-life smartphones—requires a conscientious approach about the intrinsic value of what is being disposed of.

Thinking circularly, as we’ve discussed on this blog, is how to handle waste as resource instead of landfill fodder. But, what about changing the first part of this equation instead? Wouldn’t that make all the actions across the whole system more sustainable?

3M’s mandate in its purest form

Time will tell if what 3M has put into motion has the right answers, but for now we can say it is a move in the right direction. When sustainable thinking is guiding design and manufacturing intent, capitalizing on resources becomes something built-in to the process, rather than an additional step to be made by the consumer. Putting the whole cycle on a sustainable course is an ideal action for the manufacturer to make.

Of course, given the vague terms on which 3M staked this mandate, the manufacturer could just be greenwashing to buy time and solidarity from its partners and consumers. But if they do follow through and bring sustainable thinking to the forefront of the manufacturing process, then it could shift manufacturing across more industries toward a better trajectory.

Putting sustainability before the first steps of manufacturing would ensure that materials were gathered more efficiently, resources were used more effectively, and waste handled responsibly. Overall, the whole process would get a facelift from what is currently looks like. Our culture is a buy-use-toss society—and the manufacturing process is a make-use-trash one. This sustainable outlook would then, presumably, analyze each of those stages for sustainable potential.

The problem with not designing sustainably

Consumers will continue to purchase items regardless of what state the planet is in. We are a consumer culture, and whether for need or want, we like to buy things. And in this culture, the costs have been driven lower and lower toward the front of the process—which limits how much environmental responsibility the manufacturer can have with products that have left their factory.

It’s true that the biggest deficit the products we consume have is the cost to properly dispose of them or to be sourced from the often more expensive sustainable options. Driving costs lower forces this quotient to be externalized; the payment of those factors landing on the environment, or the generations to come. Unless regulations like the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are enforced, manufacturers have no real way to effectively diminish the damage that’s being done to our ecosystem.

But moving sustainable actions to the front of the machines that make our stuff might actually help add some producer responsibility in a way that won’t have to be, well, extended.

The hope is this mandated 3M will be the first in a new wave of forward-thinking companies who want to imbue the linear economy of make-use-trash less wasteful—at least on the front end. If the companies who make the products that we consume work toward making those products more sustainable, then our consumption will be less harmful to the environment.

Take that one step further and have those manufacturers also incorporate a sustainable way to dispose of that product—back when they first designed it—and this kind of mandate could be the circular answer we’ve all been waiting for. An internalization of costs to make things sustainable… I’d be willing to pay for that. How about you?

About Sage

Sage Sustainable Electronics leads the market in sustainable IT asset management and disposition (ITAD) by reusing more and recycling less. Every year, businesses retire millions of used-but-still-useful technology products, creating the fastest growing business and consumer waste stream in the world. We strategically and passionately help companies reuse more and recycle less than anyone else in the industry.

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