Recently, I spoke with a young man in his early 20s about recycling and the conversation moved to product stewardship. I asked him if he knew what the term meant. He thought for a moment, shook his head and said, “Product stewardship, what’s THAT?”
Industry insiders know the definition of product stewardship to be “the act of minimizing health, safety, environmental and social impacts, and maximizing economic benefits of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages.” And, we know that “the producer of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. Stewardship can be either voluntary or required by law.” Simply put, product stewardship is a policy of minimizing the environmental impacts of products in the marketplace.
Product stewardship programs focused on caring for our environment use the term often because it precisely describes an important aspect of our work – our mission. Current product stewardship organizations like PaintCare (serving paint industry), CARE (serving the carpet industry) and Call2Recycle (serving the battery industry) share the same challenge in connecting with consumers who are likely interested in what we do, but may be excluded by the words we use and what it means to them.
Using messaging that is easy to understand allows the consumer to embrace all the wonderful benefits of product stewardship. Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), agrees that the term may not be as popular as other environmental buzzwords, but says that, as far as consumers go, taking actions that support product stewardship is far more important than just being able to recite a definition.
“Consumers are one of the most powerful change agents in the marketplace, and they can make a lasting, positive impact on the future of product stewardship just by making an effort to understand how our everyday products affect our health and our environment,” Cassel said. “Of course, product stewardship has to start with the manufacturer before consumers can do their part. That means designing products that are environmentally preferable and setting up programs that allow consumers to safely manage products at the end of their useful lives. The issue is less about getting consumers to use the term ‘product stewardship’ and more about getting them to take environmentally responsible actions that support the principles of product stewardship—actions like dropping off their leftover paint, prescription drugs, batteries, or unwanted electronics at designated take-back sites.”