Environmentally Friendly Ways of Manufacturing in China
How many individual products have you produced in the lifetime of your business? How many plastic bags were thrown away after your products arrived at your customer's doors? How much carbon emissions have gone into the atmosphere because of your brand?Before you run off, assuming this is an article meant to shame businesses, whatever your answers are to the above questions, just know, you’ve done less than one-hundredth of the harm to the environment than my company has done.
I own a sourcing company. It is my job to find the cheapest, most efficient factories in China who will accept to take my client's orders, produce tens of thousands of their widgets, ship them across oceans, only for them to end up in landfills of your countries.
In 2018, during every second of the year, we had products being manufactured, products being shipped across oceans, and products landing in the hands of consumers. When I went through our long list of products we successfully produced, I counted the products that were made with the forethought of being environmentally friendly. That number was less than five.
Collectively, you, me, other readers of the Private Label Insider, your competitors and my clients are doing a pretty lousy job helping our environment. I am hoping that can change for 2019. Which is why I challenge every company selling consumer products to make at least one environmentally conscious decision on the next product they manufacture from China. And in turn, I will begin educating and guiding all of my clients on the same, whether they like it, or not.
In order to move into this direction, we need to begin understanding how products can be made in an eco-friendly fashion. This article seeks to dive into the basics of what brands can do to focus their companies on having a more environmentally sustainable future.
When bringing a product to market, there are major areas one can look to implement environmentally friendly practices. These areas range from how the product is designed, to what materials the product is designed with, all the way to the type of packaging used. As we go through these areas, we will present examples of brands already implementing these practices, which in turn, should help you discover how you too can implement changes to your products.
Product Life Cycle
To define your product life cycle, you need to be able to understand what measures were taken from acquiring the raw materials to make the product, all the way to the final disposal. In order to understand the environmental impact your product plays, every stage of the product life cycle must be taken into account.
As you plan for a product to be produced, ask yourself these questions:
If your product is thrown away at the end of its use, can you identify a way for the product to be reusable, as opposed to recyclable?
A lot of brands are gaining popularity due to their unique solutions to answer this exact question, and it shouldn't be a surprise to realize some of the top Amazon products are answering this question. Here are examples of traditionally single-use products that have been remade to be reusable; produce bags, lint rollers, puppy pee pads, baby food pouches, and Keurig K-cups.
If your product is already made from recycled material is there any way you can make the product from renewable materials, as opposed to recyclable?
Hugo Boss has recently designed a shoe which replaces the leather upper with a vegan alternative made from pineapple leaves. They have successfully reused the leaves from pineapples to produce a textile material used for the shoe. Their entire shoe acting as a case study on one company solution to reduce, reuse, recycle, their soles are from recycled TPU, and their remaining parts claim to be entirely organic (Source)
If your product can’t be made from reusable materials, how much of it will be recyclable? Could you offer a way to collect your used products from your customers, and make the recycling process more efficient? By reclaiming your materials, the recycling process can be more environmentally friendly by not having to rely on recycling plants as you recycle your own products.
Soda maker machine companies like Soda Stream are excellent examples of this. First, they sought to solve a solution to prevent plastic waste from plastic soda bottles, by creating a machine that allows one to make soda at home. They provide reusable carbonation bottles to encourage their customers to send the bottles back to their warehouse to be refilled and reused. Soda stream also uses glass bottles which can be used indefinitely to store the soda their machine makes.
Does your product rely on nonrenewable, rare earth materials that can be substituted?
There are a lot of companies investing hundreds of millions of dollars in researching alternatives to rare earth metals. Toyota for one announced a new magnet, which reduces the need to rely on rare earth metals in their electric motors by 50%. For small product brands, this level of research and development is unobtainable. Instead, it is possible for smaller brands to understand all materials used in your products, and begin researching what alternatives to the nonrenewable materials might exist.
Bamboo sunglasses, such as Woodies, and all the brands that came after them, is the perfect example of simple alternatives which small product brands can make that substitute nonrenewable materials for renewable ones.
Understanding your production process and what goes into producing your products is a phenomenal way to begin identifying more efficient ways to produce your products.
Can you identify manufacturers capable of producing your product that has gone through an energy audit?
An energy audit is a great way to begin understanding what measures can be taken to conserve natural resources. This type of audit is relatively new in China and based on my experience, a lot of small to mid-sized factories are stubborn to invest in changes without investment or incredibly large orders, it is, however, possible to source factories who have successfully gone through an energy audit, and are focused on the matter.
To find these factories, my recommendation is to start with the online sourcing databases and use energy-related keywords in your search for specific factories. Also, reach out to suppliers you’ve considered in the past to see if they have gone through any type of energy audit.
Are you able to identify factories who use renewable energy?
There have been reports claiming China has taken the lead as a renewable energy superpower. They have become the worlds largest producer, exporter, and installer of solar and wind power, as well as electric vehicles and batteries. As China continues to expand their focus, you will begin seeing more factories moving towards these types of renewable forms of energy.
Start by speaking with your existing factories, to see what their plans are for renewable energy implementation. If they don’t have any plans, begin adding these questions to your factory interviews during product sourcing.
How can you reduce your production waste?
It is often more profitable for a factory to produce products at faster speeds. While factories know the defect rate will be higher, this process allows them to handle more productions at once, with the only downside being wasted materials. From a financial perspective, wasted material is often cheaper than slow productions. In other instances, factories are not knowledgable on efficient ways of production which minimize waste.
A factory that acknowledges the importance of waste reduction, and is motivated to identify methods of improvement can make your goal of identifying environmentally friendly methods of manufacturing much easier. In most cases, however, you will need to identify this on your own for your supplier. This can be done via a third-party audit/inspection or can be done during your next visit to the factory during your production.
While you visit your factory next, take notes on their material waste. An energy consultant may be able to provide greater insight into whether or not their waste levels are high, but your calculations and conversations with the factory could be enough to aide in minor reductions.
Packaging is waste. While a necessity to most products, we need to admit, all packaging is a waste of some kind. One of the easiest methods of making your brand more eco-friendly is to focus on sustainable packaging practices.
Can your packaging become biodegradable?
Materials such as banana leaf, paper, processed bamboo, vegetable fibers, and food waste are examples of biodegradable materials. All of these examples will decompose naturally when disposed of. An incredible example of biodegradable packaging is Level Ground Tradings compostable packaging. This is a company that has been landfill-free since 2004, meaning none of their byproducts end up in landfills. They claim you can compost the packaging their products come in right in your own backyard.
Can you replace the plastic in your packaging with paper?
Look at your product and the packaging. From the bubble wrap to the blister pack, to the tape and the poly bag. How much of this can be replaced with paper or other biodegradable products?
I believe the most difficult replacement in product packaging is bubble-wrap since, without it, your product could instantly turn to waste. If your product absolutely needs bubble-wrap, it may be worth looking into bubble-wrap that uses recycled materials. Before you make this jump, however, review whether or not bubble-wrap is actually necessary. I’ve unofficially conducted a lot of drop-box test with and without bubble-wrap and concluded in my own findings that the added protection was not entirely necessary for some of the products being shipped. If you identify this on your own, work with your factory to see if you can omit the bubble-wrap on your next shipment, or even replace it with crumpled paper.
Paper tape, biodegradable poly bags, and biodegradable packing peanuts are all widely available. While the cost of these materials may be higher than their eco-unfriendly counterparts, I implore you to look into them as the cost has been dropping considerably over the years.
Can you make your packaging smaller?
As online sellers, this is most likely a huge concern already due to shipping costs, but nonetheless, if there is any way to decrease the size of your packaging, do so! Not only will you see an immediate economic benefit in terms of shipping costs and storage fees, but you’ll also be reducing waste and energy in the process.
Make Changes Incrementally
If your products are not yet eco-friendly, but you have decided it is worth the effort to move in that direction, it is important to understand that most changes need to be done incrementally. Packaging changes can often be down with little regard to the manufacturing process, but changing the product itself can’t be done overnight. The best steps we all can take are to become better educated on the subject. For some of you, that means understanding your product materials and the affects they have on the environment. For others, it is understanding why we want to begin doing our part to better protect the environment.
If you want to share your efforts on how you made your products eco-friendly, I would love to hear about it. If you are just getting started in the planning process and would like to brainstorm some ideas, you are more than welcome to email me directly so we can chat - firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck in your endeavors, and I promise to you all I am working to improve the environmental footprint created by my client's products, and trust you will work to do the same.