Why transforming the product value chain is important

By John Gertsakis and Rose Read
A comprehensive product stewardship approach is lifecycle-oriented and seeks to transform the value chain through diverse interventions from design and production through to post consumption and how we can better manage end-of-life outcomes.

It is about producers, brands and retailers taking greater responsibility for the products they place on the market, and ensuring higher levels of environmental performance and impact reduction.

The need for systemic change and fundamental reform is a given and overdue.

Authentic product stewardship squarely places responsibility and accountability for the environmental and social impacts of products across their entire lifecycle on the producers and brands.

It is not this diluted notion of shared roles, which often fails to delineate who owns these impacts, be they solid and hazardous wastes at end of life, carbon emissions, or the specification of unsafe chemicals, finite resources or non-renewable inputs at the design and production stage.

Read more: R&D can lessen the impact of battery waste

Product stewardship provides a clear pathway for businesses to operationalise circular economy objectives to design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials circularity in the economy and restore the environment, and goes beyond the typically nebulous language that accompanies claims and pledges about circularity.

Policy-makers and some industries are realising that an effective product stewardship approach on-the-ground, needs to place environmental and human health objectives at the centre of how we develop, implement and monitor all of these initiatives
and schemes.

When executed well, product stewardship delivers a variety of benefits and positive impacts including:

Environmental — eliminating hazardous materials, conserving resources and materials, preventing and reducing waste, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Social — improving workers’ health and safety across the supply chain, and increasing accessibility to repair services and collection points for recycling.
Economic — job creation, upskilling, reskilling, and creating new markets for recovered materials

Recent research by UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence, on the annual performance data of stewardship initiatives and survey findings identified five characteristics to effective stewardship.

1. High levels of industry or business investment and participation was considered essential for realising these benefits. For most of the collective schemes assessed, some form of regulation was viewed as necessary to maximise industry participation and secure adequate investment. This ensured fair sharing of costs by industry, and reduced the impact of free-riders. For individual business initiatives, this ensured sufficient allocation of internal resources. Interview findings suggested that voluntary schemes can be more flexible in addressing changing market conditions, or the needs of members. There is an opportunity to introduce greater flexibility and responsiveness in regulatory approaches for collective schemes. Several interviewees expressed a pragmatic acceptance that regulation was the best solution for ensuring high levels of industry investment and participation.
2. Clearly defined objectives — measurable environmental, social, and economic performance indicators demonstrate benefits and allow for continual assessment of the effectiveness.
3. Good governance — this includes well-defined roles and responsibilities and ensures transparency through public reporting.
4. Use of financial incentives — to drive behaviour change of businesses, consumers, repairers, collectors, sorters, and recyclers.
5. Effective marketing and communications — leading to high awareness and increased user participation.

The analysis also identified several factors limiting effective product stewardship including:

Low awareness and understanding of product stewardship, and its potential;
inconsistency in data collection and reporting;
overemphasis on end-of-life interventions at the cost of more preventative measures to back up the product lifecycle; and
low rates of adequate investment and participation in industry‑led collective schemes, including the well-known barrier of free-riders.

The Product Stewardship Gateway developed by UTS ISF and the Centre starts to tell a story of progress and development of existing and emerging product stewardship initiatives in Australia, albeit at slow pace and often overly focused on end-of-life responses that are ameliorative rather than preventative.

The Gateway includes publicly reported environmental, social, and economic outcomes.

Product stewardship must, and will start, to migrate further up the resource and waste hierarchy to avoid, prevent, refuse, reuse and repair. It needs to rapidly shift beyond the lip service given to sustainable design, durability, repairability and the proactive elimination of unsafe chemicals.

The Centre will continue to support, mentor, enable and encourage producers, brands, retailers, associations to be ambitious and comprehensive as they shift towards higher levels of environmental performance, transparency and responsibility.

Accelerating the adoption of product stewardship across industries, sectors and product categories remains core to the Centre’s mission.

The first quarter of 2024 will see several Centre of Excellence initiatives released including:

A Priority Actions Roadmap to further elevate and accelerate product stewardship action to 2030. It will cover policy reforms, products, and processes, aimed at an integrated approach that avoids cherry-picking solutions sector
by sector.

A Product Stewardship Disclosure Framework that aligns with international developments related to product stewardship, extended producer responsibility and circular economy action. The framework will serve to inform government and industry policy as Australia shifts to a net zero circular economy that also acknowledges the importance of addressing over-production and over-consumption.

An expanding program of online learning and professional development to build capabilities and competencies among practitioners as well as executive decision-makers. The theme of learn, equip and act will drive the course content development.

What remains critically important as Australia matures its approach to product stewardship is how we must work much harder to positively build environmental, social and economic capital. BAU dressed up as innovation isn’t the answer.

There is no single factor, KPI or measure that characterises successful product stewardship.

What is becoming more evident as we manage existing and emerging schemes, is the need for multiple actions and interventions in order for such schemes to realise their potential.

This includes innovation in policy and regulation, real-world circularity measures across the lifecycle, productive collaboration, rigorous governance, adequate investment and a genuine commitment to transform the language of ESG and circularity into positive impacts that deliver responsible prosperity and meet the every increasing consumer expectations.

A comprehensive product stewardship approach that is explicitly lifecycle-oriented has the power to go beyond less harm, and confidently look towards achieving restorative and regenerative outcomes.

Above all we need to remember that product stewardship is about taking responsibility for environmental protection and minimising harm to humans in a way that can still deliver responsible prosperity.

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