Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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Firms and sustainability frameworks: Strategizing for efficient materials management

Developing solutions through frameworks geared toward strategic and sustainable materials management.

Sustainability is not simply an accounting of the energy flows throughout a firm; it also calls for the proper management and understanding of the firm’s material flows. The negative impacts of unsustainable materials management manifest themselves in a variety of ways and ultimately affect both humanity and nature. The tools used to analyze sustainability and assess lifecycles are limited in scope and do not allow for an analyses that provide solutions for present and future operations. Frameworks for strategic and sustainable design (FSSD) are known for being helpful when developing holistic solutions that allow for more efficient and effective materials management.
A team of researchers from the Blekinge Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering contributed to the development of a framework analysis that takes a deeper look into how firms interact with FSSDs when managing material streams. The study was recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The article sets forth an FSSD made up of five levels, each of which is used as a reference point for sustainability analyses. These levels include: system, success, strategic guidelines, tools, and action levels. The study reviews five cases that deal with materials management with a clear connection to the FSSD framework proposed in the study. The team compiled data from literature reviews and held interviews with a variety of stakeholders associated with the cases. The five participating firms were Hydro Polymers, Rohm and Haas, InterfaceFlor, Electrolux, and Max and the Natural Step.
The study states that customers, as well as manufacturers, perceive certain materials as having a positive impact on the environment because of the inherent capacity of these materials to be used sustainably while others are viewed as sustainable because they have not yet been linked with a negative environmental impact. Both scenarios present an opportunity where the FSSD framework can be used to gain a more holistic view of the material by attaching additional variables, such as global warming potential or environmental toxicity, for consideration.
FSSDs can also help with the proper management of materials viewed as unsustainable or harmful for the environment. In the context of unsustainable materials, FSSDs help firms identify opportunities for linkages, partnerships, alternative product design, and innovative recovery methods.  The analysis of InterfaceFlor, for example, demonstrated opportunities for waste reduction and the development of a closed loop recycling system.
Firms are faced with a myriad of problems when attempting to grapple with materials management. FSSDs allow firms to use the current suite of tools geared toward efficient resource use in a way that effectively manages sustainable materials and provides insights on how to deal with environmentally burdensome materials. Frameworks like the one applied in this study can lead to the development of more comprehensive approaches to materials management.  Moving forward, firms may look to implement sustainability frameworks into their arsenal in an effort to better understand material flows, reduce environmental impact, and leverage financial capital toward implementing these strategies.
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Original Paper:
Lindahl P, Robert KH, Ny H, Broman, G. (2014) “Strategic sustainability considerations in materials management.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 64: 98-103.

DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.07.015


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