Approaching Strategic Sustainable Materials Management

Abstract: Society’s sustainability challenges relatedto materials management have been an area of concern for policymakers, industry and the public for decades. However, if those challenges are managed in a strategic way, they are not only aproblem, but could also bring in new opportunity for companies and other organizations to improve their competitiveness through developingproduct-service systems that promote sustainable development of society. The overall aim of this thesis is to explore how aframework for strategic sustainable development (FSSD) can support the development and design of sustainable materials management strategies in product innovation. This is achieved by four studies investigating howsustainability considerations are, or could be, integrated in decisions regarding materials selection. The studies are informed by the FSSD, Maxwell’s model for qualitative research design and the design research methodology. The first study is a theoretical discussion which provides a base for the following three exploratory studies. The exploratory studies have, through literature reviews and semi-structured interviews, investigated general sustainabilityconsiderations in companies, made a comparison of the strategic potential of two product improvement strategies and finally studied what considerations that are in focus and what types of solutions that are revealed when companies apply a strategic sustainability perspective to materials management. The studies have shown that decisions regarding materials management often arebased on compliance with legislation and on avoiding substances with characteristics commonly considered problematic (such as toxicity, persistency, etc.), and that decision support regarding how materials could be managed in a sustainable way are lacking. However, the results also include some examples from companies that have successfully developed pro-active strategies towards sustainable materials management. They have approached this through managing materials in closedtechnical loops, enabled material substitution through value chain collaboration and reduced material flows through new and innovative design. Most importantly, they have assessedactions not only regarding their potential to reduce a selection of current socio-ecological impacts but also regarding their potential to link toforthcoming actions towards the full scope of socio-ecological sustainability. Through this approach, they have found several ways by which materials with characteristics that are commonly considered problematic can be. The results highlight the possibility of enabling sustainable materials management practices by using a strategic sustainability perspective in combination with material characteristics knowledge and that a static division of “sustainable” vs. “unsustainable” materials (e.g., through lists of forbidden and allowed materials) is not necessarily serving the purpose in the best way. More subtle considerations are needed. By not applying a strategic sustainability perspective to materials management, organizations risk using “sustainable” materials in unsustainable ways or phasing out “unsustainable” materials that, managed differently, could be helpful for sustainable development. Developing decision support for materials management that integrates this new way of thinking will be the focus of future work.