Assessing Sustainability and Guiding Development towards More Sustainable Products

University dissertation from Chalmers University of Technology

Abstract: Companies need to develop more sustainable products that fit into future more sustainable markets. For this reason, the integration of sustainability considerations is needed in the early stages of product development, where a major part of the sustainability performance of a final product is determined. The aim of the research presented in this doctoral thesis is to better understand both enablers and obstacles in developing sustainable products. This research is based on three empirical studies. In the first study participatory action research was applied in a material research project aiming at developing wood-based materials to replace petroleum-based materials, while ensuring a more sustainable product. A specific focus was on how to facilitate action towards more sustainable products by visualising what affects a product’s sustainability. The insights from the first study were applied to the second study, an investigation of the connection between ecolabels and clothing design at three Swedish clothing companies. The research revealed a weak connection, because present ecolabel criteria mainly focus on considerations at the production stage. During the above-mentioned studies it became increasingly apparent that the business organisation has an important influence on companies’ ability to develop more sustainable products. A third study examined two companies to attain a better understanding of how company management systems affect work practices regarding sustainability in product development. The research revealed that technical knowledge on products, production and sustainability is a necessary condition, but by itself not sufficient to drive development of more sustainable products; action competence in a broader sense is needed. For a company or organisation to achieve action competence, collaboration and team learning are necessary, since many different skills must be utilised.