How can Research and Development contribute to sustainability?

Sustainability is the word of the century. More than ever before, people and companies became aware of the long-term impact our actions have on the environment.

“More companies, and their investors, are recognizing sustainability as a strategic priority that involves significant business risks and opportunities.”says Mckinsey in a report. 

Yet, creating a culture of sustainability can be a wearying mission. Sometimes people across the organisation are not fully onboard with the concept and they can even develop resistance and wrong associations. Some can see sustainability as a hinder in achieving their targets. Others might think it’s just a buzzword. Hence, ensuring that everyone understands the WHY of sustainability, is crucial for the success of any company.

Arion R&D Sustainability: a challenge and an opportunity

Sustainability became an Arion core value almost 10 years ago. We embedded the word in the first letter of the SMILE – our business guiding principles.
In 2023, we decided to swift from a Strategy of Sustainability towards a Sustainable strategy. It basically means that all the decisions from the strategy need to be taken with sustainability in mind. But translating strategy into action is a much longer journey.

For many years the mission of building a sustainable mindset across the company was on the Sustainability manager. He ensured that Arion’s sustainability mindset goes beyond the requirements from the CSR regulation for our industry. That’s what granted Arion the CSR certificate ladder 4.

How can we build a culture of sustainability across all departments?
Changing mindsets and behaviors takes a tremendous amount of work and time. It is about not missing any occasion to reiterate the WHY.
In 2023 we started with themed Open Cafes to emphasize and align on our core values. The theme of the Q1 was Sustainability. R&D, Sales and Quality presented their current projects from the sustainability perspective. They explained what they do and how they apply sustainability in daily work.

Sustainable R&D projects in progress

The core of R&D role from the sustainability perspective is to ensure that we develop products in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way possible. R&D can do that from at least three points of view:
• how we operate our labs (process-oriented methods and measures)
• how we develop new products (product-oriented methods and measures)
• what processes and materials we use

From the process-oriented perspective, our R&D sustainability is certified with ISO9001 and ISO14001. But these certifications can only tell something about sustainability at Arion to the people who know how the certification works. During the Open Café, our R&D Manager, Christine de Kogel, gave specific examples of sustainability translated into practice, that everyone in the company could understand.
The first measures taken are in line with the green chemistry framework which looks at 12 key green measures labs could pay attention to:

  • waste reduction
  • energy efficiency
  • use of natural products
  • reduce carbon footprint with more sustainable processes.

For example, our R&D team uses glass vials instead of plastics for analysing raw materials, creating prototypes and determining stability.
As Christine emphasizes, some choices are not always that simple: “We limit the use of plastic where we can, but because for sampling everything needs to be sterile, sometimes plastic is the only option. Sterile glass vials are simply unaffordable in this context.

Other than paying close attention to existing processes and operations, our R&D team is doing a lot of testing on different raw materials combinations. One example they shared was about the tests they are currently doing to use natural thickener in the Swash® Perineum lotion instead of using thickener that has plastic in it.
Their aim is to produce only natural lotions and renewable nonwoven.

Other sustainable choices made by our R&D:
• Glass vials over plastic for analyzing raw materials, creating prototypes and determining stability.
• Local sourcing whenever is possible
• Lotion ingredients that are not fossil fuel based
• Cold process techniques instead of hot process, which would require a lot of excess energy consumption.
• Wipe material 50% biobased, 50 recycled

Challenges and limitations of sustainability practices in R&D

Being 100% sustainable is a big challenge. In most cases sustainability is a matter of making strategic choices that will have a positive impact on the environment, people and resources.
It is important to realise that sustainability will require you to make some choices and decide what’s more important for the company. Those choices will not always be easy. When our R&D department chose cold processing technique to produce the lotion for our gloves, wipes and shampoo caps they knew it will limit them in choice of raw materials they could use.

As Christine explains “you cannot use waxes and butters, for example, because those need to be melted and incorporated into hot water to get a stable lotion. Changing the viscosity and creating emulsions is also more complex when done cold but it is not impossible and more sustainable so worth the challenge.”

R&D team chose cold process techniques because hot process would require a lot of excess energy. “You would need to heat up two large vessels: one with water and one with other ingredients, to 80°C only to mix them and let them cool down again before they can be used for impregnation in the wipes. This would be an enormous waste of energy and heat. And why do it when you can do it cold?”,  clarifies Christine.

Other times, the scarcity of certain raw materials, like 100% PP used to make our packaging fully recyclable, makes it impossible to produce more sustainable package for our products.
Finally, the biggest challenge when it comes to sustainability in R&D is to keep a balance between using materials with the smallest possible environmental impact without compromising the efficacy or safety of our products.

Photo of the R&D Manager at Arion
Christine de Kogel – R&D Manager

“Sustainability does not begin or end with the product itself. You should consider the entire product chain; from raw material selection over manufacturing process, to use and disposal. I can choose the best, most biodegradable, and natural wax as a raw material for Swash®, but if I need to cut down a forest to grow it, transport it around the world to get it or waste energy to use it, then how sustainable is the resulting product really? The challenge is to look further then your own product. And it makes R&D more fun.

From paying attention to raw materials or the tools used in the daily work in the lab, to how we pack our products, each department can play a major role in making the company more sustainable. Whether you are asking each department to share how they translate sustainability in their daily work during Open Cafes, as we are doing, or just sharing best sustainable practices across the company, ensuring that all the departments understand why sustainability is important, and how can it be implemented in daily work, it’s a key to building a sustainability mindset. At Arion, we know that every little change we implement, no matter how small, can have a big positive impact.

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