Assessing the sustainability of any individual product or company is a core facet of the work we do here at Grow Ensemble.
For our Buy Ensemble Better-World Business & Product Directory, we see it as our duty to both identify and define what makes for a sustainable product in any industry or category.
If we’re to Buy Ensemble, we’re making purchasing decisions with a sense of the greater “we” in mind. We’re considering how this purchase affects people and the planet beyond ourselves.
In our efforts to actually fulfill that duty, Buy-ing Ensemble, we believe definitions are critically important.
If there’s no agreed-upon definition of “sustainability,” it’s unclear what anyone means when they say their product is sustainable.
So, for the sake of setting important definitions, here we are asking:
What is a sustainable product?
After assessing brands and products spanning all sorts of industries for “sustainability,” we’ve come to develop a (working) definition.
This definition carries with it complexity and a list of working component parts, but we find that it’s built from three pillars: performance, planet, and accountability.
In this post, I’ll be breaking down each. Let’s get started.
There has long been some idea that to opt for an “eco-friendly” product, you must in some way compromise on the performance of that product.
You’ve picked the “eco-friendly” option because you feel better about its impact on the planet, not because it’s the product that best serves your need/solves the problem you have.
Thankfully, this isn’t the case anymore.
But it also can’t be. There remains the barrier of habit and convenience that often comes with switching from traditional products from the products we’re familiar with. While it would be wonderful if everyone was willing to make compromises on performance as they go through the process of finding the people- and planet-friendly products that work for them…the portion of the population willing to compromise on the convenience of familiarity isn’t growing fast enough.
But, buyers’ unwillingness to compromise doesn’t license businesses to negatively impact people and the planet to meet performance expectations. We have to meet performance expectations without a negative impact on people and the planet.
So, here are the three lenses through which we assess the performance of a sustainable product:
This, of course, varies based on what category of product we are talking about, but if we’re evaluating a phone case for example (like we did with the Pela Case), we need to address whether or not the phone case in question protects our phone.
If it doesn’t and there are frequent reports of cracked screens or damaged phones, then the case isn’t serving its intended purpose. What would be the point of the product existing?
It’s also important to evaluate how well a product is serving its intended purpose on the spectrum of the whole market, not just the sustainable product market.
We want sustainable products to be at a minimum on par with the “conventional” alternatives.
So, our key questions to ask here:
- Does the product serve its intended purpose?
- And, does it serve that intended purpose well?
This component of durability/longevity shares some overlap with purpose. However, it’s specific enough to warrant an explanation.
One of the simplest ways to make a more sustainable product is to make sure it has a long, useful life.
The best example here might be a comparison between fast fashion and slow fashion.
Fast fashion pieces (produced by companies like; H&M, Zara, and SHEIN) are made as cheaply and quickly as possible.
Having a different style each week is entirely possible. Clothes are made cheaply, and won’t last long, but that isn’t the intention. The goal is to get garments to shelves as fast and cheap as possible while encouraging consumers to purchase as much as possible. The pieces are made to be disposable.
And so, by this definition fast fashion clothing items are unsustainable.
Slow fashion in contrast centers on clothes that are made to wear not just for a season but for years. Slow fashion is about timeless style, clothes that are made to last, and ideally investing in the fewest pieces you need for the longest duration of time.
And, if/when something happens to a timeless item, you look to repair and restore to extend that useful lifespan because it’s worth it, as opposed to fast fashion pieces for which the repair would far out-cost the product itself if the dirt-cheap textiles used could even handle a repair.
This has me thinking of brands like EILEEN FISHER or Patagonia. Patagonia, for instance, launched Worn Wear, where customers trade in their old Patagonia gear for credit and can buy these used garments for a discounted price to extend their useful lifespan and keep more clothing out of the landfill.
There are very few expectations for why any product should be made to be disposable. It’s wasteful. It encourages unhealthy consumption habits.
In any circumstance, the goal of the sustainable product designer should be to create a product that’s durable and has industry-leading longevity.
So, our key questions here are:
- What’s the useful lifespan of the product?
- How does that compare to similar products?
- Finally, what accountability does the company take for repairs and product guarantees?
Pricing is inevitably a factor. It’s common for sustainable products to be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
That’s okay and is often what’s to be expected. The reason the conventional products are the prices they are is because brands are cutting corners and ignoring some negative externalities, be it environmental, labor, etc.
However, even with that consideration, it’s important that sustainable businesses keep in mind how “accessible” their products are.
If a product is strictly positioned as a luxury good, you’ll only make a change in a luxury market.
There’s a difficult dance to be had with margin, but it’s a conversation that more business leaders who believe themselves on the edge of “sustainable and ethical business” should be having.
Is the goal to make a change? Or, to make the healthiest profit? This discussion can be gray but is very important to have and acknowledge, nonetheless.
So, our key questions:
- How does this sustainable product’s price compare to the greater market?
- How does it compare to other comparable sustainable options?
Planet (Environmental + Social)
Next, we assess the effects a product has on the planet. And when we say “planet,” we are speaking to both the environmental aspect and social aspect (people).
What we do to the planet, we do to its people, and what we do to the people, we do to the planet.
Let’s start with the environmental impact.
Circularity / End of Life
It’s difficult to argue that the future of a sustainable economy isn’t strictly a circular economy.
The highest-impact piece of the product development process is often the procurement of the raw materials to make it.
Whether that’s the industrialized agriculture behind our clothes or the mining of precious metals to make the technology we use, those processes are where the bulk of emissions come from in a majority of product development.
It follows that we should progress to do as little of that as we can if it can only be done in an extractive, exploitative fashion (for the opposite, see: regenerative agriculture).
So, it’s imperative that brands think about the end of life of their products if they truly want to be part of the movement towards building sustainable economies.
That must be the new standard. Companies cannot go on ignoring what happens to their products at the end of their useful life. That is not solely the consumer’s responsibility.
I especially like the position that companies like MUD Jeans have taken with programs like their “Lease a Jeans” program. With that initiative, MUD is making it clear that they have ownership over the jeans they sold you, and they are accepting accountability for what happens to them when you’ve worn them out.
Or, there is a growing movement of compostable products for what would be typically disposable. Phone cases, trash bags, or food storage wrap for example.
If it’s possible, it should certainly be considered.
So, our key questions:
- What’s the anticipated end of life for the product?
- What degree of accountability has the brand accepted for the end of life of their product?
- What (if at all) has the brand offered as a solution for the end of life for their product?
We next attempt to assess what sort of energy output is required to produce a product and what type of energy is used.
They’ve earned the right to say they sell sunscreen “powered by the sun.”
Our key questions here:
- What energy consumption is required to produce the product?
- What type of energy is consumed to produce the product?
We’ll then look at what materials any one product is made out of and how those materials are procured.
There are a few challenges in this piece to analyze a product’s sustainability. There are wildly different materials used for a notebook versus a smartphone for instance.
This can take a major analysis as to what materials are in fact the most sustainable, especially as new information comes to light with time.
Also, the degree to which the materials claims made are verifiable, or legitimate can be difficult (see the section on Accountability).
For example, there are many issues with the certifiability of organic vs. conventional cotton in the global supply chain. It’s estimated that anywhere from 50% to 80% of cotton labeled “organic” coming from India isn’t in fact organic.
With all this in mind, we want to be able to identify what materials we are using, how they are obtained (and how consumptive that process is), as well as the waste involved in their life cycle.
Key questions here:
- What type of materials are used to make the product?
- Are these materials renewable?
- How are these raw materials obtained?
- What does the end of the life cycle for these materials look like?
Shipping & Packaging
Shipping and packaging are as well important pieces of the overall discussion.
The distance required for a product to travel, the packaging a product is shipped in, and as well what happens to that packaging are all important factors that contribute to a product’s footprint.
Some companies will make their packaging from recycled materials, ensure their packaging is compostable or seek to offset the emissions from the packaging and shipping costs.
In the measurement of carbon emissions, shipping and transportation emissions are referred to as Scope 3 emissions.
So, key questions here:
- What’s the environmental cost of transportation?
- What packaging is the product shipped in?
- What’s to be done with the packaging after the product arrives at its final destination?
When applicable, a product’s sustainability is assessed on the relationship to biodiversity and animal welfare (e.g. food and agricultural businesses or, in some cases, fashion).
In this scenario, I find it helpful to defer to the requirements for the Regenerative Organic Certification via the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
This certification ensures the humane treatment of any / all animals involved in a commercial operation.
The animals must be provided “Five Freedoms,” meaning they have the freedom from any excess discomfort or distress, have the ability to pursue all behaviors normal to their species, have access to nutritious food and clean water, and are provided with proactive and preventative healthcare.
For those interested, you can see the full extent of the ROC™ requirements for animal welfare, here.
So, the key question here (if any animals are involved in the production of a product):
- Are animals treated humanely?
The first social component of our analysis focuses on livelihoods. It’s inexcusable that anyone working a job shouldn’t be able to meet their basic needs. No matter their job description, no matter their geographic location.
Living wages are the minimum standard.
To disagree with that is to say that there is an acceptable level of exploitation in business.
If a business cannot afford to pay workers who make their products a verifiable living wage, they either need to reassess their business model or cease to exist.
As well, when workers aren’t exactly “employed” by a brand, but merely contracted (typical of manufacturing in a global supply chain), it’s important that those relationships are fair and equitable.
This will mean long-term guaranteed contracts if applicable, and fair or premium prices paid for any materials or goods (e.g. coffee for example).
However, all things considered here, often a prerequisite for guaranteeing adequate livelihoods for any/all workers is the transparency of who in fact these workers are.
This, overlapping with our final section on “Accountability,” businesses must ensure that 1) they know who is involved in their own supply chain and 2) that’s likewise apparent and easy to see for the end customer.
So, the key questions here are:
- Is it clear where the company’s products are made? And, who makes them?
- Is it clear whether or not all company’s workers are paid a living wage?
- If the company works with partner suppliers, farmers, and manufacturers, to produce their products, is it clear whether or not those relationships are fair, equitable, and long-term?
This, quite simply, is whether or not the working conditions for the people behind a company’s products are verifiably safe.
This, a rampant issue in the fashion industry (see: the Rana Plaza Disaster), is an essential component of determining the sustainability of a product.
If a product cannot be produced in an environment that’s safe for the workers, then by our definition, that product isn’t sustainable.
There’s no level of danger or insecurity that any person must go through for the sole purpose of bringing a particular product to shelves.
So, our key questions here:
- Can it be verified that the working conditions for any/all involved workers are safe?
While the opacity of global supply chains can make addressing the first two components of our social analysis difficult, this next component can be made difficult for its subjective nature.
Our assessment of product outcomes are to determine what the impacts of a product are on the people it’s intended to serve.
For example, it’s unclear whether any type of “Pay Day Loan,” is ethical. By their nature, they appear predatory, capitalizing on individuals who are in desperate financial positions.
Other industries are more difficult to assess. For example, the food and beverage industry has many complexities here as it relates to their “outcomes.”
We are all very aware of the negative effects of alcohol, for instance, but does that mean it’s unethical to make wine? Distill whiskey?
What about ice cream or other desserts? They aren’t “good” for us, but is running an ice cream company unethical?
In this frame of thought, I think what’s most important here is the expectation. If someone is producing and selling a product that they are advertising to be “healthy,” if it in fact isn’t, I believe that’s when a brand crosses the line.
There are plenty of examples of brands advertising their products as nutritious, or healthy, but their ingredients label suggests something different.
So, our broad, open-ended key question here:
- What are the impacts of a product? Are people and communities better off as a result of this product existing and being sold?
Finally, we assess whether or not there is any sort of element of “Contribution” built into the purchase of any product.
Companies like TOMS and Warby Parker popularized the “buy one give one” model. TOMS, famously donating a pair of shoes for every pair sold, and Warby Parker, doing the same for glasses.
This is nice and has a strong perception of “doing good,” but it is important that brands prioritize many of the other factors listed above (and below) first.
For instance, if a brand is giving away a product for every one sold, but they aren’t verifiably paying workers a living wage…they’d make a much greater impact by focusing on their wages first.
Or, at least make much less of a negative impact.
Contribution and give-back programs can be great.
Organizations like 1% for the Planet are responsible for their community of business members contributing large sums to incredible grassroots environmental organizations that always need funding.
However, contribution or give-back programs shouldn’t be used as a distraction or marketing asset while companies ignore the true potential for impact (positive or negative) through the core of their product production process.
So, our key question here:
- Does the product have any sort of built-in contribution initiative or give-back program?
- If so, does this program follow other sustainable practices?
This section of “Accountability” is perhaps most important for the reason that it can validate any/all claims made in the previous sections.
There is no reason why companies shouldn’t open themselves up for third-party critique.
If what a company claims, in both their impact (negatively/positively) on people and the planet is legitimate, seeking external accountability should only further establish their credibility with consumers.
Certifications & Associations
There’s often a critique of certifications, labels, and associations. They are either too hard to obtain, cost too much money to maintain or are in some way imperfect or flawed in their assessment.
There are a couple of ways that companies commonly move forward (based on those previous judgments/opinions):
- They don’t participate. They might even create their own standards for certifying ethics and sustainability (see why Starbucks isn’t Fair Trade and, the issues they have with slave labor as a product of that).
- They participate and seek to improve the standards alongside the certifying body.
The circumstance isn’t always clear, but we have found that there’s good reason for these various certifications existing (Fair Trade, for example).
And third-party accountability should be welcome. It’s already been proven that companies cannot regulate themselves. The costs of failed voluntary ethics/sustainability commitments are too high.
We can’t experiment with human and planetary exploitation.
And so, we see certifications as a very important signal to the level of sustainability a company is abiding by. While yes, imperfect, these various organizations behind these certifications are well committed (and expected) to make continual progress.
Achieving these certifications is also a sign of commitment as we see it. As mentioned above, they aren’t typically easy to obtain, and, with the work and often any associated certifying costs, they certainly aren’t free.
And finally, certifications assist in quicker purchasing decisions. Think about a single visit to the grocery store. How many individual products and brands are you choosing from?
It’s helpful if, on a tea box for example, like a Yogi Tea box, you can see the certifications; non-GMO verified, USDA Organic, and Certified B Corp. These certifications help to make a purchasing decision easier.
So, our key questions here:
- Has the company behind the product earned any certifications, or joined any associations that might validate any/all of their sustainability claims?
As well, here’s a list of potential certifications we look out for:
- Certified B Corporation
- Certified Fair Trade
- Certified USDA Organic
- Regenerative Organic Certified
- Certified Climate Neutral
- 1% for the Planet
Along with a company’s commitment to seeking out industry and product-relevant certifications, the degree to which they are proactively open and radically transparent with the way in which their products are made is a critical component of our overall evaluation.
On a company level, you might be familiar with Impact Reports. These are reports that companies create on an annual basis to measure and report on their social and environmental progress.
On a product level, we’re looking more so at the transparency behind a company’s supply chain and production practices.
This can be a little more formal, like A Good Company, where you can see an interactive map of all their factories.
This can also be more informal, like Tablas Creek Vineyard, where the General Manager Jason Haas has been keeping an extremely detailed blog on the ins and outs of their winemaking processes for multiple years.
So, our key questions here:
- To what extent is a company proactive by publicly documenting its social and environmental progress?
This degree of assessment and evaluation takes time. It’s also a highly subjective process.
The more products and companies we become familiar with, the more it feels like we understand the broad spectrum of what it means to make a “sustainable” product and run a “sustainable” business.
Of course, I know this assessment can’t be done by everyone for every product. That in part is why it’s our job here at Grow Ensemble.
We want to go through the sometimes rigorous exercise of defining sustainability in these varied contexts to both make your purchasing decisions easier (by reviewing any one of our guides) and to likewise “cast votes,” in such a way to support more of what we hope to see in the world.
To us, that means supporting businesses that are on the journey to complete sustainability, businesses that are more about contributing positively to culture and their communities versus building their companies at all costs.
They’ll identify areas of concern, excess consumption and extraction, and seek to remedy, not for the sake of ‘checking a box,’ but rather, creating a more sustainable standard for commerce now and in the future.
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Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.