Working for a company like Siemens, which is a big supporter of Earth Day, World Water Day, and other important sustainability initiatives, combined with some quality beach and mountain time this summer with my family, and my trip recently to the Outdoor Retailer show in beautiful Salt Lake City, I’m in a green mood.
Sustainable design, production, delivery, and consumption is a focus for many consumers and manufacturers these days - but what about in the retail industry? I think aside from many of the outdoor retailers like Patagonia, Timberland, REI, Black Diamond, and others, designing “green” shirts, pants, footwear, and jackets have not really been a focus. Not because retailers don’t have this mindset, it’s (I think) that with the recession, they have been focused on improving product development efficiencies vs. eco-friendly design, sourcing and production (which may be more costly); and with this potentially higher cost means higher prices, which consumers don’t have an appetite for. Understandable.
One organization, OIA (Outdoor Industry Association), has been developing an Eco-Index in concert with many of the outdoor retailers I just mentioned, and manufacturers from other industries as well. See my post on this for more information. Slated to launch next year, the idea would be to have a system that would rank the environmental impact of your product. One could see a valuable integration of this information to the product ideation, modeling, and design process – much as the design of a product and costs are modeled during the planning process, this information could enable environmental impact modeling. It becomes just another step in the product validation process. This is not a new concept – companies like Phillips Healthcare have been taking this approach for years. Phillip’s focus during product development is to measure and minimize the impact of energy consumption, packaging , hazardous substances, material weight, recycling and disposal, and lifetime reliability. Essentially eco-design has become embedded into the fabric of the companies’ DNA.
Retailers celebrated Earth Day this year by giving away a lot of free stuff to commemorate the day – not particularly green or sustainable. The intent, as with companies across industries, has been mostly to improve brand perception among consumers. Eventually, however, I think the market will build for environmentally friendly retail products, whether softlines, hardlines, or footwear. Compliance regulations, like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) will drive this, as will the recognition that segments of the market like apparel design are simply not very green or efficient – for example, it takes 101 gallons of water to produce one pound of wool or cotton.
When this realization occurs, PLM needs to be an integral part of “green” new product development and launch. PLM by nature excels at integrating disparate points of data into a unified view – product, supplier, demand, and compliance. And to design retail products in a more sustainable way, manufacturers need to bring elements of this information into their product design process.
But will consumers ultimately care if retail manufacturers start designing with materials that were farmed, delivered, and/or developed more sustainably, or begin incorporating eco-impact scores on their product labels? I think so. But they won’t make the leap if prices rise to unsustainable levels, due to expensive (i.e. inefficient, costly) design, development, and manufacturing practices.