Sustainability and green products continue to be watchwords for a housewares industry looking to draw buyers to its brands.
Displays throughout the International Home + Housewares Show, held March 6-8 in Chicago, boasted of products with recycled content or ones that are recyclable not just plastics but steel and glass as well.
Sweden's Electrolux AB is launching three vacuums to the market this year with more than 50 percent of their plastic from post-consumer recycled material. It sponsored a global contest to create concept vacuum canisters using plastic recovered on beaches in Asia, Europe and the United States.
NextLife LLC, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based specialist that works with manufacturers to access post-consumer recycled resins, is seeing increased interest from its polypropylene and polystyrene approved for food contact by the Food and Drug Administration.
There are so many more products this year than there were last year, said NextLife's Catherine Del Spina. As people see products, they'll embrace them.
But products like those already on the market are only a small part of the story for product designers anxious to take sustainability beyond simple terms like recycling.
An entire life-cycle analysis looks at the energy used to create the materials used in a product; it considers the packaging and the distance it is shipped from the manufacturer to the consumer; and how long it will last if it's something that will be used once and thrown away, or something that can be used again and again, said designers during a panel discussion on sustainability during the show.
Mark Fastabend, engineering manager with HoMedics Inc., a consumer products company based in the Detroit suburb of Commerce Township, Mich., noted that the company was working recently on a new product that would use nearly 90 percent recycled content, but by taking a broader look at the entire process, the company found even more green opportunities.
We actually went back in product design and changed it, because even at the early stages with [two-dimensional] sketches we were looking at how many we could fit into a 40-foot container, he said. We realized that if we just made it a half-inch shorter, we could get a whole other layer into the container. Now no consumer is ever going to know that. They won't care.
But those are the types of decisions companies need to make if they want to make environmental issues more than just an advertising blurb, he said.
Jason Foster said he tried to consider the entire life cycle when he launched Replenish Bottling Co. Inc. of West Hollywood, Calif., and its PET reusable bottle and cleaning system.
Replenish uses a two-part bottle with a concentrated cleaning solution in one section that is screwed on to the rest of the bottle and a sprayer. Consumers can flip the bottle over and squeeze out a small amount of the concentrate into a pre-measured container within the larger bottle, then dilute with water. Only the concentrate pod needs to be repurchased, and one pod can make four bottles of cleaner.
Diluting the concentrate with water at home reduces the cost of shipping, which further improves Replenish's global footprint, Foster said.
But once he came up with the idea for Replenish, Foster said he ran up against road blocks.
Little did I know how difficult it actually is to create a bottle that has two holes in it, he said. You're going against 60 years of manufacturing that does not build a bottle that way.
Foster wanted to use PET for Replenish, since that is the easiest material to recycle. But material selection was only the beginning.
We kept running into this roadblock where we could get 60 percent of the way there. We couldn't get all the way there, so we finally settled, in that we thought we could injection mold this bottle and people don't use injection molding for bottles because it costs more than blow molding, he said. With the materials, it came down to the idea that maybe we could do it with injection molding in PET, but no one had ever used PET in this sort of a setting where we needed ultrasonic welding at the bottom of the bottle.
Replenish finally took the chance to build injection mold tooling to make the bottle, hoping that the concept would work. The risk paid off, and the company's product is on sale now at Internet sites and goes on sale in April at Whole Foods markets in the Midwest.
You're not going to get where you want by taking the path of least resistance, Foster said.
And consumers are not necessarily going to buy into products just because they're environmentally friendly, Fastabend warned. Green alone will not sell.
When you put these products into retail, they have to be able to compete, he said. It's not always a case that consumers are willing to pay 15 or 20 percent more for a sustainable product.
Green products also have to do what they are designed for, if the drive for sustainability is going to work in the long run.
There's nothing I hate more than buying a product that's supposed to be green and then it sucks, said Charles Austen Angell, founder of industrial design group Modern Edge Inc. of Portland, Ore. You pick up a trash bag that's supposed to be recyclable, and all your trash falls out.
I don't think there's any better way to hurt the cause of sustainability more than to put out bad products, because then you establish in the mind of the consumer that sustainability is associated with compromise.