There’s a reason why the concept of “sustainability” is on everyone’s mind these days. Every year seems to set a new record for warm temperatures, prices for waste disposal continue to rise, and resources are becoming scarcer and more costly. These issues force us to confront the consequences of a society that depends upon short-lived, disposable products every day; such a confrontation can be uncomfortable. However, these challenges need not be approached with apocalyptic fear.
Too often, manufacturers and product innovators find themselves playing catch-up—or worse, hide and seek—as consumers and regulators demand ever more environmentally conscious, sustainable solutions to waste and pollution, especially for those of us in the plastics and chemicals industries. The reason why is simple: We’re trying to protect our short-term profits. Long- term, though, this can be a costly game to play, which is why we must be leaders and not followers in the journey to sustainability.
A successful innovation or product doesn’t simply improve incrementally upon what’s already available, it solves a problem—sometimes, a problem the customers didn’t even know they had.
The leaders in technological innovation are not driven by current consumer demand, after all. They study their customers’ or clients’ needs in order to anticipate the needs of the future. A successful innovation or product doesn’t simply improve incrementally upon what’s already available, it solves a problem—sometimes, a problem the customers didn’t even know they had.
Increasingly, the marketplace tells us that unsustainable materials and products present problems for consumers. Likewise, the market is prepared to create solutions to these problems for product manufacturers.
Solutions That Endure
The first step to more sustainable industries is creating solutions that last longer. While shorter-term, more disposable products can be offered for less, broadening the market for their purchase, consumers find out before long that compromises in durability and longevity mean more money spent on maintenance and replacement. Durable products may cost more up front, but they are also more cost-efficient. The quality and reliability of such products also help build trust with customers and develop future referral business.
It’s not enough for plastic and polymer products to simply last longer, however. If they must still be replaced and thrown out at the end of their lifecycle, the customer must still defray the cost of purchasing the material, energy, and labor to manufacture its replacement. This problem can be solved in part by recyclability. When a product can be recycled, it not only eliminates some of the material costs of manufacturing a replacement but also the costs of waste disposal. Plastic in a landfill—or worse, in the ocean—does neither the customer or manufacturer any good at all.
For the most part, the resource transformation sector is made up of mature, fully consolidated industries with high entry barriers and low competition. Innovation, in this way, is typically a reaction to new regulation and focused on preserving profit margins. Unfortunately, this short-term thinking does little for the consumer.
A New Generation on the Rise
Tastes and priorities are changing rapidly as a new generation rises to the top in global buying power. This opens significant opportunities for proactive, sustainable, product-focused innovation as customer preferences shift and demand grows along with the global middle class.
In the chemicals industry, for example, the green chemistry market is expected to grow from $2.8 billion in 2011 to $98.5 billion this year—an increase of 3,500 percent in less than ten years. Businesses leading in this trend will almost certainly emerge with significant advantages over competitors in both sales and reputation.
With all of these factors in mind, it becomes undeniable that sustainability efforts must not just be about compliance and risk mitigation. If a company is reacting to new regulations or consumer trends alone, they are already behind. It has become clear that market leadership in sustainable solutions will be the key to improved competitive positioning moving forward.
If a company is reacting to new regulations or consumer trends alone, they are already behind.
Consumers will be watching to see who the innovators on the front lines of the sustainability movement of this era will be, and those who fall behind now may have a harder time catching up in the future.
By Diego Grüebler, CEO, POLOPLAST America, Inc.