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Reassess, reduce, reuse, recycle – how to be a sustainable modern business

(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

Reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a saying that’s been drummed into us over the years, and while a snappy phrase can’t solve all our problems, it has provided a basic hierarchy on how we can act to help the environment.

However, considering the scale of the environmental problem we’re currently facing, it’s clear that the phrase hasn’t stood the test of the time. It oversimplifies an extremely complex issue and has too narrow a focus. Many businesses still lean too heavily on it as their guiding principle, causing them to fall behind the curve and become too reactive in their approach to sustainability.

What’s needed is a new proactive approach, captured more aptly as ‘reassess, reduce, reuse, recycle’. This creates a new mindset to help businesses become more sustainable, where ‘reassess’ is the first step for any enterprise looking to make a real difference in reducing its environmental impact. Only then can informed decisions be made on how ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ ought to be applied, while new opportunities to apply the hierarchy can be identified.

Be proactive

The modern approach to recycling started in the 1970s and has largely become standard practice for both businesses and consumers. It’s taken a bit of time, but eventually we’ve seen trends in reusing and reducing materials also grow in recent years, along with the concept of the ‘circular economy’ which places these two so highly.

However, this focus on the old phrase means that businesses have often been reactive when it comes to making improvements in sustainability. For example, it was consumer backlash stemming from Blue Planet 2’s airing in 2017 that has spurred action against single use plastic items such as straws and packaging rather than companies taking the initiative themselves.

The average consumer in 2019 is more concerned with the environment than ever before and token changes only made due to complaints can be perceived as ‘greenwashing’.

Just being reactive isn’t good enough to keep up with these demands, meaning that the onus is on businesses to take the initiative and go all in on sustainability. Implementing a ‘reassess’ step helps them to get on the front foot, anticipating consumer trends and becoming more sustainable as a result.

Circular economy state of mind

This proactivity needs to be baked into the product development cycle for any manufacturer wanting to enter the circular economy. Often referred to as a ‘lifecycle assessment’, it allows manufacturers to evaluate a range of potential issues and make better choices when it comes to the implementation of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ hierarchy in a product’s creation.

Without the ‘reassess’ step, it can be unclear whether a new reusable product might actually have a longer-term impact on the environment because of its new manufacturing process. For example, a product may be almost fully recyclable, but is it easy to separate and recycle the constituent parts? Are reusable products bulkier, therefore creating a larger carbon footprint during transport and negating any benefits?

These are the types of considerations that need to be assessed right at the beginning of a product’s development to ensure the right decisions are made when it comes to applying the reduce, reuse and recycle stages – it doesn’t always have to be in that order.

For example, it’s generally preferable to avoid using plastic packaging at all due to its impact on the environment. However, there are some cases where it may actually be more sustainable to use plastic since it can prevent damage, and therefore reduce wastage, to important items such as medicine and hazardous products. Of course, this should only be applied to the goods which really need it, which is why reassessment is vital.

Taking the time to reassess is key to identifying cases where ‘reduce’ might not be the most sustainable option to apply, even if it’s actually possible. Businesses that can do this and employ a sustainable mindset in product development stand a much better chance of developing products that are genuinely better for the environment.

Future impact

Adding in a ‘reassess’ step also helps businesses to get ahead of future trends. Take Industry 4.0 for example – it holds the potential to revolutionise manufacturing through the use of smart technologies and the widespread implementation of automation, but it could prove a double-edged sword when it comes to sustainability.

All technology used as part of Industry 4.0 will have an environmental footprint of some sort and it’s up to businesses to evaluate this fully. Robotics need to be energy efficient, while AI and automated computer processes use large amounts datacentre power to operate, the impact of which needs to be balanced against the benefits they bring to manufacturing. There’s no point releasing a new eco-friendly product if its manufacturing process has become unsustainable.

It also pays to anticipate consumer trends. For example, the miniaturisation trend of the late 20th century has reversed as phones and other devices get larger due to consumer demands. This puts pressure on manufacturers to find ways to ensure the devices are environmentally friendly, something that forward planning can help to tackle through reassessment.

Taking this step back is vital to ensure that any sustainability decisions made are properly implemented and cover as many areas of the business as possible, both for products and internal operations. True sustainability leaders such as Patagonia do this well and it shows both through their products and the overall running of their businesses.

Making ‘reassess’ the first R gives a full evaluation of the business and helps to analyse all areas for improvement. Are offices being run sustainably, and how can internal operations be run different to reduce damage to the environment? It also helps to get everyone in the business working with a sustainable mindset.

It’s time that businesses make sustainable design their default, and to do this requires a slight change in the old maxim. ‘Reassess, reduce, reuse, recycle’ ought to be the guiding principles for any business looking to become a sustainability leader and help to deliver a better world for us all.

James Pittick, Partner Channel Director and Sustainability Lead, Canon UK