What are sustainable materials?


There are many considerations when selecting materials to manufacture products, deliver services and/or develop environments. Sustainable materials may be sourced from low environmental impact or renewable resources, be more durable with a longer lifecycle, have a smaller footprint to manufacture or use, or be easier to break down at end of life. Some can even be human-made materials, designed to help preserve natural resources.  

Our current global economy’s linear business model of “take, make, and waste,” is depleting natural resources faster than they can be replenished and straining ecosystems. A circular model would only use the smallest necessary amount of these essential resources while having a net positive impact on their supply and eliminate reliance on non-renewable, finite resources altogether. It would measure business success in large part on the ability to do more with less, keep products and materials in use, design out waste and pollution and restore and regenerate natural systems. 

Why are sustainable materials important?

From design to manufacturing, the use of materials that are more sustainable in diverse industries has created awareness of and dialogue on the way processes and materials impact the environment. With more research and development, we can create materials that have a reduced impact and with broader use and access to innovation, the world can get closer to achieving sustainable consumption and production ambitions.  

How are sustainable materials impacting the world today?

How is the use of sustainable materials being implemented across industry?

More sustainable materials are being used in virtually every industry, including construction, health care, consumer goods, manufacturing and fashion. Each industry must define what sustainable leadership means for them and what they can do to find solutions to our collective challenges — and consumers must decide as well. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as “sustainable” or “unsustainable,” but consumers may want to consider not only the materials in the product but how it’s made, who made it, how it’s transported and how long it will last. By sharing information on goals and progress, companies are trying to make this decision process easier for consumers.

What problems is it solving in the world?

Using materials that are more sustainable may have many benefits, such as preserving natural resources for future generations. A greater understanding of industry impact on the environment, people and communities, as well as the creation of new, more sustainable materials, creates a shift in how things are built, created and designed with longevity in mind.

Sustainable Materials at 3M

How is it being viewed, utilized, and developed at 3M?

3M is committed to being a leader in sustainability. We believe it is our responsibility to carefully integrate renewable and recycled materials and enhance the circularity of water, packaging, products, and by-products from production processes as we focus on designing solutions that do more with less material, advancing a global circular economy.

Circular. Climate. Community. 
We focus on three priority areas: 

  • Science for Circular: Design solutions that do more with less material, advancing a global circular economy  
  • Science for Climate: Innovate to decarbonize industry, accelerate climate solutions and improve our own environmental footprint  
  • Science for Community: Create a more positive world through science and inspire people to join us
Innovative solutions.

Since 2019, every new product that enters 3M’s new product commercialization process has a Sustainability Value Commitment that demonstrates how it drives impact for the greater good. Example considerations include reusability, recyclability, waste reduction, energy and water savings, or use of recycled or renewable materials appropriate to the specific product throughout its life cycle. This formal requirement embeds sustainability into the pipeline that produces 3M’s diverse global products. 
We are researching and developing advancements every day – whether we are engaging industries or developing new products and packaging solutions like Scotch® Cushion Lock™ Protective Wrap. Made with 100% recycled paper and recyclable, it’s a great alternative to plastic cushion wrap packaging. 

Taking action.

Over the next 20 years, 3M will invest approximately $1 billion to deliver on our new environmental goals and support continuous improvement of our manufacturing operations. Additionally, 3Mgives investments include accelerating global climate solutions and advancing a circular economy to foster sustainable communities and improve the quality of every life. 

We have set clear commitments and an ambitious, long-term strategy that will leverage our passion for science. Our intent is to use a science-based approach to tackle the challenges that are most material to 3M and critical to our planet and the people living on it. It is our ambition to create a more sustainable future through our people, products, solutions, and science advocacy. 

Big picture: What could it mean for the future?

The global economy is at a crossroads. Corporations have an opportunity to embrace new circular business models – ones that are regenerative and that replenish natural resources rather than depleting them. As industry develops new ways to create a sustainable future, new innovations across design, processing and manufacturing will develop, pushing toward a circular future for all.  
Learn more about the application of sustainable materials and eco-design in our stories below, and see our 3M Futures survey on sustainability, highlighting global perceptions of our role in the environment – and the way individuals around the globe prioritize the environment.