Understanding changes in product stewardship

In this article, learn more about the changing role of product stewardship and the challenges of those working in the role.  

Melanie Rybar

by Melanie Rybar

Understanding the evolving landscape of product stewardship is more important than ever, as new regulations and business demands focus on the environmental impact of products throughout their entire lifecycle.

What is product stewardship?

Product stewardship is an approach to managing the environmental impact of products. It’s based on the premise that everyone involved in the production, use or disposal of products has a responsibility to minimize their impact on the environment and human health and safety.  

The term product stewardship is often used interchangeably with extended producer responsibility, but they’re not the same thing. Extended producer responsibility is a regulation type which prioritizes the manufacturer’s responsibility for end-of-life management of their products. Product stewardship is used more broadly, often to describe a job role, the philosophical approach to managing products responsibly, or as a practical approach to doing so. It makes it clear that other stakeholders such as suppliers, retailers, consumers, and recycling companies all have a role to play along the entire lifecycle of a product. 

Glass-bottle deposit systems are a good example of product stewardship in action. When consumers buy a product in a glass bottle, part of the retail price is a deposit for the bottle. If the bottle is returned, the retailer refunds the deposit, and then returns the bottle to the manufacturer for reuse or recycling. This means the consumer is contributing by returning the bottle. 

How is product stewardship changing?

The concept of product stewardship has therefore been around for many years. However, as jurisdictions around the globe prioritize sustainability, the concept is increasingly being applied to more products and in more jurisdictions.  

For example, in the US, the Northwest Product Stewardship Council is a group of local, state and federal agencies, businesses and non-profits in the Pacific Northwest. Its work is wide-ranging, covering packaging, electronics, paint, medicines, batteries, mercury, mattresses, carpets and more. Its overall aim, it says, is ‘to enhance Washington’s and Oregon’s reuse, recycling and waste management systems’.  

The council has set out principles that cover the role of producers, retailers, and consumers. Producers must establish and fund stewardship programs that cover the impact of their products’ lifecycle, right through to the end of their lives.  

Wherever products are covered by the scheme, participating retailers are expected to only sell products from companies that comply with stewardship requirements. Consumers are responsible for using return and recycling schemes.  

Similarly, Australia’s Product Stewardship Act 2011 provides a framework for managing the environmental impacts of a wide range of products. One example of this is a national scheme for recycling televisions and computers. This has recycled more than 200,000 tonnes of electronic waste over its lifetime.  

Overall, it seems likely that product stewardship will gradually extend to more products and categories over time, and over jurisdictions, as more robust recycling systems and sustainable manufacturing methods are developed. 

Understanding the role of product stewards

There are many distinct aspects to the role of product stewards, depending on where the business sits in the supply chain and where the product stewards sit within the company.  

Upstream: At the beginning of the supply chain, a product steward in a raw material producer company may be involved in both product development and manufacturing. In development, they may help find appropriate materials for products or alternatives for materials previously used. They may also be involved in assessing the recyclability of materials and products. In manufacturing, the need is to find processes that are environmentally friendly and minimize waste and emissions.  

Downstream: In distribution and retail, the role of product stewards changes slightly. They’re more likely to be considering the safe handling and transport of products, and product labeling. Consumers need to know how to use and dispose of products safely. Manufacturers have the main responsibility for product labeling, but retailers can reinforce the messages.  

End of life: At the end of the supply chain, product stewards at businesses making consumer-facing products may be responsible for managing appropriate product use, promoting practices that reduce environmental impact during use, and improving recycling. They may also be responsible for managing the proper disposal of products at the end of their lifecycle.  

Finally, regardless of where you sit in the supply chain there are two aspects of product stewardship that are common to businesses across all parts of the product lifecycle.  

The first is compliance with regulatory requirements. Laws about environmental health and safety and product compliance apply to all those along the product lifecycle. Developing robust compliance programs and strategies is crucial for long-term business success.  

The second is stakeholder engagement, to ensure that both internally and externally the business is addressing concerns and finding solutions to any product stewardship issues.  

Challenges for product stewardship

In the current regulatory and consumer landscape, there are numerous tasks and challenges emerging for those involved in product stewardship. 

With the regulatory environment rapidly changing, product stewards play a key role in staying abreast of chemical regulations and ensuring compliance. Product stewards are often not only responsible for maintaining existing compliance within their departments, but also for supporting other compliance efforts throughout the business at large.  

In addition, product stewards are often solely responsible for forecasting and monitoring how future regulatory changes could impact the business. 

One of the biggest challenges for regulatory compliance is balancing requirements across different jurisdictions. Regulations across the globe are often at vastly different stages of development, and companies may find it difficult to identify what’s required and where. Product stewards will be the people responsible for unpacking these requirements and advising the business on how best to respond.  

Product stewards also have an important part to play in making regulatory assessments for new products. It’s becoming increasingly important to understand all the components of any given product before production begins—and that means knowing your raw materials. Product stewards are likely to be responsible for gathering information, such as on chemicals used prior to further development.  

Where next for product stewards?

As more countries and jurisdictions begin to prioritize environmental compliance and sustainability, the role of product stewards will become increasingly important. How can you ensure that you can perform, and how can Enhesa help? Enhesa Product Intelligence solutions are a great way to stay informed and gain insights on chemicals and product safety. Product stewards may also find it helpful to sign up for some specific training or events, such as those run by Chemical Watch Events & Training 

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