From waste to value: product managers as activists

The path

“Change the tool and you can change the world.”
“You all live aboard a spaceship called earth.”
— Buckminster Fuller

Waste is a difficult concept as it is complex and subjective. In product management, especially with the emphasis on lean management and agile development, waste mainly refers to non-value add activities and anything that hinders an organization’s effectiveness and efficiencies. However, given our consumer society with the perpetual cycle of think+make+distribute+dispose, we need to look at waste more holistically and incorporate the product life cycle into our discussion on waste. In this post, we will look at how a product manager could reframe waste as an opportunity by improving the bottom line AND doing good for society.

Recently, I was reflecting on the number of great ladies that I have worked with who left the technology field for one reason or another. And they are not alone — a few male engineers that I also know went into non-tech fields after working many years at technology companies.  One could even suggest that, while I am still in the auditorium, recently I have had a sporadic showing at the podium. I really enjoy working with technology; however, after a while, the product development cycle can start to feel repetitive and meaningless: similar problems and processes for yet another product. Finding meaning and purpose is a step towards breaking that mundane feeling, and thinking like an activist, whether you are a developer, technologist or a product manager, can help reframe and refocus our day-to-day work.

What is waste?

As I mentioned, waste is a complex and a subjective concept. Here are a few of my favorite takes on defining waste; please share your favorite ones as well.

  • Lean thinking is focused on maximizing customer value, and anything that doesn’t add value is considered waste.
  • Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff) describes what is not-waste from a user perspective: “I like stuff if it’s well-made, honestly marketed, used for a long time, and at the end of its life recycled in a way that doesn’t thrust the planet, poison people or exploit workers. Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful.” (“The Human Cost of Stuff: How to be more than a mindful consumer”)
  • Cradle-to-cradle design highlights that the process of down-cycling — processing of materials through reuse into lesser products — will eventually lead to waste. In Upcycle, authors share that ‘waste’ and ‘wasting’ are human inventions: it is created by humans for short-term convenience with long-term consequences to humans, the environment and the economy. Yet, in nature everything has a purpose, and with that we need to transform our thinking to “waste as food” (waste=food) to enable upcycling of materials and creating abundance.
  • What is not sustainable results in waste. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) established the following definition for sustainability: “Development that meets the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It is also important to note that, as we reframe how we see waste, we will be more open to how one’s waste can be another’s treasure!

Main sources of waste

Given these different definitions of waste, lets look at sources that contribute to waste generation:

  • products that are designed for obsolescence or perceived obsolescence;
  • the process of material extraction, processing and disposal;
  • activities (transportation, packaging, …) associated with development, manufacturing, distribution, support and disposal;
  • resources (water, energy, …) used during development, manufacturing, distribution and disposal;
  • issues with quality and performance impacting usability, serviceability and maintainability;
  • policy decisions resulting in negative social and environmental impacts.

I would like to especially touch on design for obsolescence, the major source of the e-waste problem.

E-waste and design for obsolescence

Introduction of planned obsolescence can be traced back to 1930s, where designers were called on to stimulate the consumption of goods in order to combat the depression and strengthen the economy [1,6.] However, during World War II, due to combat conditions and critical material shortages, designers focused on making products better, not just for continued consumption. “A three-quart casserole, made of plasticized cardboard able to sustain temperatures of 475 degrees for several hours, washable and infinitely reusable, retailing for 45 cents, is an excellent example, and seems curiously to have disappeared from the market by 1945.” (Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by Victor Papanek)

Shortly after World War II, with recognition that society was ready for anything different and new, focus switched back to artificially driving obsolescence with planned product replacements and new styles. And, unfortunately, with an ever accelerated pace of technological innovations, we have increased the rate of perceived obsolescence and thereby the generation of e-waste. And, more unfortunately, as most of these devices are not properly recycled, in the process, we not only loose precious metals but also release toxic materials such as lead, barium, and mercury into the ecosystem and hurt the communities where e-waste is dumped.

Yes, planned obsolescence is designed into our products. Yes, planned obsolescence results in large amount of e-waste, that is not directly quantified in our product metrics during development. And, yes, consumer behavior contributes to this waste generation. However, as product managers and technology creators, we need to step up and recognize we hold the key to change, and contribute towards a better solution.

Approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked in’ at the design stage(RSA-The Great Recovery.) As product managers, we are the orchestrator of making things. So, lets change the process of how we make things!

Product managers as activists, orchestrators and change leaders

Technology and product development is about making choices, and choices implies values. As product and technology managers, we need to extend our values and goals to support society and the environment at large, beyond our business and immediate customers. As a starting point, we can adopt UN Global Compact’s The 10 Principles for businesses as a guideline for adopting sustainable and socially responsible policies. The UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses in the areas of human rightslaborenvironment and anti-corruption. Businesses, recognizing the global impact of their actions, can help ensure that markets, commerce, technology and finance advance in ways that benefit economies and societies everywhere.

The 10 Principles - UN Global Compact

The 10 Principles by UN Global Compact

For practical purposes, this boils down to:

  • moving from just managing product development to owning the full life cycle of our products;
  • taking an extended view of the products and technologies we are developing and recognizing their global impact economically, environmentally and socially;
  • focusing on delivering value for all, instead of playing a zero-sum game.

These changes, especially owning the full life cycle of the product, are complex and challenging: many knobs, processes and policies to turn and adjust. With that, the product management role needs to grow into participatory design, development and management process, where the product manager is responsible for the integrity of the product vision, and orchestrates the product life cycle management activities from design to disposal through communication, partnerships and inspiration. With these changes, product managers will need to:

  • identify and communicate the business value of doing good environmentally and socially;
  • establish a plan to build competencies needed to be successful for new ways of working;
  • recognize the scale of the challenge, have the ability to communicate an empowering vision, and execute;
  • understand the importance of metrics and measure and communicate value creation at every step;
  • communicate constraints as an opportunity to stimulate development of new technologies and innovations;
  • position responsible development as a clear business opportunity for the company through differentiation.

The following ideas can help product managers to shift their thought processes:

  1. reframe customers as global citizens — not consumers;
  2. recognize waste as an opportunity to add value;
  3. aim for value — abandon tradeoffs;
  4. adopt ‘what is next’  philosophy;
  5. understand one’s waste is another’s nutrition;

Reframe customers as global citizens — not consumers

Recently I watched Yvon Chouinard talk at the GreenBiz forum (great interview and inspiration for this post!!) where he plainly spelled out his theory for global change: “Since corporations run the government, if you want to change the government, you have to change the corporations. If you want to change the corporations, change the consumers.” Yvon called for consumers to become citizens, and that is already happening.

People want to do better, and they want to do good. The Regeneration Roadmap‘s report on Re:Thinking Consumption highlights that  consumers, including those in emerging markets, “feel a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”  And that, “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations.”

Product managers need to recognize this global trend, and enable their customers to do good by recognizing their role as global citizens. Global citizenship emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things with a worldview that is culturally, environmentally, politically and economically inclusive. It believes that today’s social, political, economic and environment realities are the responsibility of all: individuals, civil organizations, communities and governments.

Today, as product managers, we use techniques such as jobs-to-be-done approach and market-driven analysis to understand what to build for our customers. What if we transitioned from the concept of a customer to a world citizen in our own evaluations? With that, we would extend existing personas to incorporate values of citizenship: doing good economically, socially and environmentally and analyze value chain activities for opportunities to improve. It also means, again by reviewing the definitions of waste, that we need to ask difficult questions as product managers: mainly, does the product contribute meaningfully to intended community and humanity?

  • is the product needed and beneficial to the society, if so in what form and capacity?
  • is the solution culturally appropriate, affordable and will it be able to evolve and grow with the community?
  • does the solution improve the social standing, quality of life and creation of sustainable environment in the region;
  • does the solution empower the community instead of creating further dependence on 3rd party support?

Waste as an opportunity to add value

“Every time we’ve made a decision that’s right for the planet, it’s made us more money.”
Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder)

Those of you who are familiar with Patagonia and their principles may already know about Patagonia’s stance that responsible business for the environment and the humanity is good business. And, Patagonia is not alone, many business are recognizing that green is not just a color; it can be the source of savings and innovation. With that, the ultimate challenge for product managers is laying out the business case for doing good and demonstrating how these opportunities add value to the company and society. As a starting point, there are numerous case studies, such with Walmart and others have show how focusing on reducing waste and cutting cost have improved not only their bottom line, but also cut down their environmental impact.

How do we take the next step from just operational savings to actually developing new designs and products that are good for all? The documentary Waste=Food captures how Cradle to Cradle framework can enable generation of new technologies and business sources for revenue.

Frameworks, such as lean management’s value stream mapping , cradle to cradle design and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be powerful tools for pinpointing where and how we can improve our design, our processes and materials. The table below is a quick summary of these three tools, however there numerous others you can investigate such as biomimicry, the natural step, various product rating and other design for sustainability standards. Let us know if there are specific tools and frameworks you use in your work.

Subset of product material and process analysis methods

Subset of product material and process analysis methods

Aim for value — abandon tradeoffs

Tradeoffs, zero sum games, are inherently subjective where some win while others loose. Instead of tradeoffs, the product manager aims to reframe the problem and use constraints to stimulate creative solutions where it can deliver value to all participants in its ecosystem. Though this is a big challenge, as product managers our job is to encourage, empower and inspire people to achieve it.

Adopt a “what’s next?” philosophy

In Upcycle, the authors urges us to always think: What’s next? “What will happen next to the shirt I design today? What is next for this book?” We must realize that in our products, we are borrowing every piece, component and part, and with that, we need to “always think and design with its next reuse and its next reuse and its next reuse in mind.”[2]

As product managers, we also need to realize this is a journey, not a sprint! With that, using product and technology roadmaps, we can align our aspirations to our capabilities, and stay in the game for the long haul. More importantly, we need to get started and just do it

Understand ones waste is another’s nutrition

Enough said! Enjoy the music! 


  1. Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by Victor Papanek.
  2. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability–Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
  3. TreeHuggerCrazy e-waste statistics explored in infographic.
  4. The Economist: Global comparison of garbage.
  5. Electronics TakeBack Coalition: E-waste problem overview.
  6. Micah White, PhDOrigin of planned obsolescence – 1932 pamphlet .
  7. Yvon Chouinard interview at GreenBiz: The company as activists.
  8. The Regeneration Roadmap report Re:Thinking Consumption


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