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How to build sustainability into NPD

Article-How to build sustainability into NPD

Most companies consider sustainability only at the end of the new product development process, but most of a product’s impact is locked in from the design stage. HowGood is an independent research company providing tools for product developers to consider sustainability right from the start.

Speaking at Fi Europe, HowGood’s Director of Growth & Innovation, João Brites, invited attendees to use the company’s online platform to formulate and then improve a food or drink product, to see how different factors affected its sustainability score. In Brazil, he said people believe there are lessons to be learned from games that can be applied to real life situations, and the ability to play with various levers to affect environmental and social outcomes reflects this philosophy.

“About 80% of a product’s sustainability impact is determined at the design stage, and that is typically where we have the least information and data about social and environmental impact,” Brites told attendees of the interactive session, ‘Design regenerative food – the game’. “It’s really complicated to design a product with impact in mind if at that critical juncture you don’t have access to that data.”

Which data?

Fifteen years in the making, HowGood’s data model assesses more than 200 environmental and social impact metrics, built on evaluations of more than 33,000 ingredients and chemicals, as well as findings from over 550 certifying bodies and research organisations. By altering the region in which an ingredient is sourced, changing ingredient proportions, or adding certifications like organic or Fairtrade, product developers can gain a thorough understanding of how their choices affect a product’s overall sustainability.

Although companies can choose what is measured to suit their own priorities – and even include their own supply chain research – the default scoring is based on a handful of weighted sustainability metrics, including soil diversity, carbon emissions, water use and labour risk.

The HowGood model already has gained attention from Danone, which provides its more than 300 product developers in Europe and North America with access to the platform.


Enabling the consumer

Danone’s Global Director of Open Innovation & Circular Economy for Food, Merijn Dols, told Fi Europe attendees, “Every time we purchase a product, we have an opportunity to vote for the world that we want. However, we have to enable to consumer to do so. If you stand in front of a shelf right now, it is impossible for a consumer to know what the impact is going to be of their choice.”

He said certificates and standards tend to be based on a specific topic, whether that is organic, Fairtrade or a carbon certification, but focusing on any one element risks unintended consequences, perhaps for biodiversity, water use or farmer livelihoods. When it comes to providing access to these choices, Dols acknowledges that other considerations usually come first for consumers, such as cost, flavour and impact on health.

“How can we start to show that the food that has a positive impact on the ecosystem and on society actually tastes great, is really delicious and is something we can identify with?” he asked. “When we can make those connections we can catalyse that change in the system…We realise that the challenges we are facing, as well as the opportunities we have in front of us, cannot be tackled by just one organisation, no matter how big that organisation is.”

Why HowGood?

He said that even the world’s top food product developers were reliant on Google to work out the impacts of their ingredient choices – and with an estimated 60 million people developing and designing food around the world, there had to be a better option.

“If you want to get that holistic understanding and you’re developing products with 10, 12 or 15 ingredients, it’s impossible for the person in the buying or marketing department to have all that information,” he said. “…If only we empower those people with information real-time on the impact of the choices that they make, they will start to make different choices, or maybe they start to ask different questions, and just that, the different question, is what is going to drive change.”

They may notice patterns in certain regions or ingredients or certifications, for instance, that tend to have a better impact than others. At Danone, questions about the impact of almonds led to the realisation that providing their developers with this tool could lead to systemic change.

“That intent for a product to be sustainable needs to be embedded,” Dols said.

Apart from large companies like Danone, Brites added that a lot of small companies were using the platform, too. The aim is to move away from simply being ‘sustainable’ – that is, not doing harm – toward regenerative systems that actually create a net positive impact.

Dols suggested there could be lighthouse products from big brands that would break through from being merely sustainable to being regenerative, and these would show the way for other brands.

“It’s OK to make stepwise improvements, as long as the vision is ambitious,” he said.