Sourcing Eco-Friendly Products in Asia: A 3-Step Process
Mar. 11 2021
Looking for ways to make your products more eco-friendly? In this guide, you will learn how eco-design, material selection, and waste reduction can help you achieve this goal.
That said, this process is considerably more complex than asking your supplier to switch to more eco-friendly materials.
This is covered:
• Material selection
• Branded materials
• Certified materials
• Generic recycled and eco-friendly materials
• Material waste reduction
It takes more than switching materials to make your products more ecofriendly. Doing so requires that you implement waste and material reducing principles at a product design stage.
This is done differently depending on your product and material and requires a deep understanding of the product and manufacturing process.
For example, the angle used when cutting wood impacts the amount of waste material. Eco-design, therefore, requires that you optimize the design to ensure that waste is kept to a minimum.
2. Material selection
Some importers think it’s enough to ask their supplier to simply use eco-friendly materials. However, the reality is more complex.
First of all, you must decide what kind of material you’re looking for:
• Recycled materials
• Natural fibers
• Leather substitutes (e.g. Pinatex)
• Natural wood
3. Branded materials
Eco-friendly materials are often developed and patented by specific companies, rather than being ‘generic’ eco-friendly materials.
Here are a few examples:
• Pinatex: Leather made from pineapple leaf fiber
• Tencel: Cellulose fabric made from dissolving wood pulp
• Seacell: Cellulose fiber mixed with seaweed
• Yulex: Natural rubber that is FSC certified
• Orange Fiber: Biodegradable fabric made from oranges
• ECONYL: Recycled nylon fabric
Some brands are selective with who they work with
These materials are not freely available for anyone to make. Instead, you can only purchase these materials from the original manufacturer. This is, of course, understandable, as years of research and large sums of money have been invested in the development of these materials.
I know from experience that certain material brands are quite selective, as they want to avoid brands that use their high-end materials to greenwash their products.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the practice of 'rebranding' a not so eco-friendly product as an eco-friendly product. This can, for example, be done by adding a small eco-friendly material part or detail to a product that is otherwise anything but eco-friendly.
Further, the minimum order quantity requirements are also set by the brand owners. This makes it harder for small buyers to use their materials.
You can only buy brand materials from the brand owners. As such, there is no price competition. Further, these companies have invested a lot of money in R&D so it’s obvious that eco-friendly materials cost more than other materials. This should not come as a surprise.
You need to import the material to your manufacturing country
Many of these materials are developed and manufactured by companies located in the United States and the European Union. While some brands have sales offices or even warehouses in Hong Kong or Mainland China, this is not always the case.
As such, you may need to arrange the shipment and customs clearance to the manufacturing country, for example, China or Vietnam.
4. Certified materials
There are various certification schemes that contract manufacturers can follow in order to brand their materials as organic or more sustainable.
Here are a few examples:
• Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Organic cotton
• Better Cotton Initiative (BCI): Organic cotton
• Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): Wood and paper
Certified suppliers are allowed to market their products as, for example, GOTS-certified or FSC.
In most cases, the certificates can be transferred to the buyer, which can then also claim that their product is organic, or FSC certified. However, this may require that the buyer also gets a certificate.
Notice that not any supplier can claim to be, for example, GOTS or FSC certified. You can find lists of certified suppliers on their respective websites.
It’s not unheard of that manufacturers or trading companies use certificates owned by other companies to claim that they are also certified.
5. Generic eco-friendly materials
Some suppliers claim to offer recycled polyester, recycled nylon and other ecofriendly materials that are not developed by a specific brand - or certified by an independent third party such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
• Recycled polyester
• Recycled nylon
• Recycled metals
The problem with using such materials is that you cannot verify if you’re actually getting recycled materials. Further, recycled is not by default eco-friendly, as you have no insight into the chemicals used in the recycling process.
Product compliance is also a potential risk factor, as you cannot verify the input material used. This can also be said about product quality, as the input material can change from batch to batch.
Further, China and other countries in Asia are not as keen on importing waste from other countries anymore, which can also impact the availability of recycled materials from domestic producers.
6. Production management
Reducing material waste during production is as important as the material itself. This ties back directly to eco-design. However, you can also help your supplier reduce material waste by sending factory auditors to monitor production - and provide instructions directly to the factory workers.
I also suggest that you prepare a production manual in the local language, to further assist the factory managers and workers to reduce material waste while in mass production.
• How can you change your design drawings to reduce material waste?
• Can the waste material be used to make components that go into your product?
• Can the waste material be used for future production runs?