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The Sustainablility Maze

As the BPMA launches its sustainability group, Andrew Langley looks at some of the tough questions merchandise has to ask

Let’s be honest, our industry faces a major challenge to convince some, that we don’t just make products that are disposable, ending up in landfill or requiring expensive and specialist (and often unavailable) recycling.

The ultimate sustainable solution is to not make anything at all – hardly very helpful to our trade. We have all seen the rush to ‘eco’ and claims about green materials abound. The issue though is that much of what is claimed is an opinion and not fact, and based on one aspect of sustainability, that can actually be contradictory to other factors. I wanted to make a few points to start a dialogue in the trade, about how we can communicate better, between end-user and distributor, and down the chain to the supplier.

What kind of sustainable?

Ask any supplier for their reaction to an inquiry for “something sustainable” and you can hear the groans a mile off. Do they mean, using recycled materials, or can be recycled, or do they mean low carbon footprint or biodegradable? The list goes on. But let’s first look at the intended product use, its lifecycle, rather than just the materials that are consumed.

Which is better, a quality product that will last and get used for years to come, but that has no obvious green credentials, or, a throwaway item made from something purporting to be green? For my sector, let’s look at leather. As long as mankind eats meat, we will have hides, which represent less than 5% of the value of the beast – it is the ultimate bi-product. We can send hides, to landfill or use them to create beautiful long-lasting and cherished products. If we use synthetics, they will consume more energy and chemicals to make. When it comes to disposal, imitation leather will be discarded sooner and takes longer to biodegrade.

So, is leather not sustainable?

People will make their own minds up, and Juniper has introduced ELeather, which is taking the leather waste and forming it in a low energy, low impact, and low carbon way. We also are introducing at Merchandise World in September a Biodegradable PU, and notebooks that are made from 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper.

Mission to inform

We are also revamping our product guidelines, datasheets and marketing materials to try and help distributors navigate through the maze of what their client really wants. Like all globally sourced products, our trade has been driven by price reductions in the recent past leading to arguably unsustainable solutions. This may have to change. It is also true to say we have seen in very broad terms three kinds of customers out there:

1. Don’t care – want the cheapest.

2. Do care, but price reluctant – so want a good story that resonates but won’t look too closely or ask too many questions.

3. Do care and will pay and will demand and expect credentials and evidence.

Unfortunately, not many of us are chemists or experts in recycling. How do we sum up the differentials and merits between supposedly clean or renewable-based fad materials, that require heavy energy manufacturing or adding dirty compounds for them to work, produced on the other side of the world, against say, the UK made and sourced traditional materials that have no specific claim?

What should we make of technically recyclable materials where there are no facilities to handle specialist recycling, and so they go to landfill anyway? It is a minefield that distributors are faced with every day and something the BPMA’s new Sustainability Group wishes to focus on. Sharing best practices, finding ways to measure success and communicate this to the wider world is a key part of what we do at the BPMA. Member suppliers and distributors who want to get involved should get in touch with the BPMA office.

Be inquisitive

From my point of view, I think that suppliers like me need to up their game on information and marketing materials, and distributors need to ask more questions and challenge their clients on what they really mean and feedback to their suppliers. Our industry’s broader challenge ultimately might not be how green is your product, but activist groups demanding why any product is justifiable. That is a whole new world of scary.

Andrew Langley is the owner and MD of Juniper, and a BPMA board director.

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