PSX 2023: The Hub of Product Stewardship
Boston Conference to Showcase New Strategies for Product Stewards
PSX 2023, to be held next month at the Westin Boston Seaport District, will focus on the topics that are most significant to product stewards and on strategies that will help them improve their practice. Here, The Synergist previews three planned sessions based on interviews with the presenters. Longer versions of this material were originally published on the Full Circle Blog. For the latest news about PSX 2023 or to register, visit the conference website.
Addressing Climate, Health, and Equity in the Built Environment Well-documented research shows that many chemicals of concern are ubiquitous in the United States, including in environments where people live and work. According to Heather Henriksen, MPA, “They are used in everyday products we all buy. Harmful classes of chemicals are also often found in our building materials.”
Henriksen has led the Harvard Office for Sustainability, which addresses aspects of the climate crisis and sustainable development, since its inception in 2008. The Office of Sustainability’s projects include working with building operators, project teams, and researchers to ensure the university’s buildings are sustainably designed, constructed, and operated.
In 2016, Henriksen led the creation of the Harvard Healthier Building Academy (HHBA) to address the issue of toxic building materials. According to Henriksen, this “robust collaboration” between the Office for Sustainability and faculty from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Harvard Medical School identifies products with harmful chemicals of concern and works with manufacturers to develop healthier product alternatives. The university then purchases these products and uses them in the construction of its buildings. The result is a healthier, more sustainable, more transparent supply chain.
One of the HHBA success stories is the Science and Engineering Complex, a 544,000 square foot laboratory building. Henriksen and the team responsible for designing and constructing the building worked with vendors to improve product transparency, remove chemicals of concern, and provide safer alternatives. Using sustainable materials paid off when the building was awarded a LEED Platinum certification and the Living Building Challenge Materials, Equity, and Beauty Petal certification.
Constructing healthier buildings is critical to HHBA’s goals, but the collaboration also uses Harvard’s considerable purchasing power and influence to send a message to manufacturers and buyers about the need for healthier materials. HHBA is in contact with businesses such as Google, Salesforce, and Kaiser Permanente, as well as the state of Massachusetts’ public school building system and affordable housing programs. If large, influential organizations like these push for safer products, they may become more widely used and available throughout the marketplace.
Henriksen will give the opening keynote at PSX 2023 on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, from 8 to 9:30 a.m. Eastern time.
Applying Design Thinking Product stewards don’t typically think of themselves as designers, but they might benefit from the process of design thinking, a methodology originally intended to help designers create products that meet users’ needs. Rebecca Morones, CPPS, and Arkadiy Tsfasman, PMP, have used the design thinking process extensively in their work at IBM, where Morones is a senior product environmental steward engineer and Tsfasman is a senior technical staff member and master inventor. They’ve found it a flexible process that integrates stakeholder feedback into the development of effective product stewardship solutions.
Design thinking is split into three overarching categories—understand, explore, and materialize—that are subdivided into six phases—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. Morones and Tsfasman make clear that design thinkers don’t have to follow the six phases in the same order for every project. This flexibility means that diverse organizations and individuals can adjust the design thinking process to their needs. “Nothing is off the table when you’re first starting out,” Morones said, “and then you narrow it down based on the stakeholders, which could be your customers, or it can be your business itself.”
At IBM, Morones and Tsfasman were tasked with identifying a chemical in a product for which the company was required to provide a warning label under California’s Proposition 65 law—subsequently, removing the chemical allowed IBM to provide the product without the warning label. Initially, IBM’s testing team believed that an epoxy resin had caused the chemical of concern within the product. After several years, multiple rounds of testing, and securing the help of IBM’s material science division, they found that the culprit was actually a flame retardant that hydrolyzed in air at room temperature. According to Morones, working with the material scientists had allowed the testing team to figure this out. When the team started the project, they had worked within a limited group, but “when we started to seek other people to help us identify this [chemical],” she said, “it created new thoughts and new processes that we were able to test and try.”
Tsfasman felt that design thinking enabled a more thorough, collaborative decision-making process that discouraged the testing team from developing tunnel vision. “Utilizing this strategy allows us to open up,” he said. “And it helps us to, at the end, improve the quality of the product going out.”
Morones and Tsfasman will host Session A1, “Resolving Environmental Compliance Issues Using the Design Thinking Process,” on Tuesday, October 17, 2023, from 10 to 11 a.m. Eastern time.
Communicating the Difference Between Hazard and Risk On July 14, 2023, the International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that it had classified the artificial sweetener aspartame as a “Group 2B” carcinogen. IARC’s news release made clear that Group 2B denotes possibly carcinogenic substances based on limited evidence in humans and lab animals and noted that the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives hadn’t lowered the acceptable daily intake for the substance. But many headlines didn’t communicate this nuance, and the public may have formed an impression that the risk of cancer from consuming aspartame in soft drinks and food products was more significant than it was.
Lisa Yang, CPPS, a health scientist with Stantec ChemRisk, has noticed this tendency throughout her career. “On social media or the news outlets, we hear about the dangers of consumer products or the dangers of things around us in our day-to-day [lives],” she said, “and while it is scary, there is another layer of complexity or knowledge that is missing.”
“Basically, a hazard is just the potential for harm,” said Lindsey Garnick, CPPS, Yang’s colleague at ChemRisk. However, “a risk is different because it considers the likelihood and the severity of the harm,” she explained. This distinction is often lost when professionals involved in health and safety, including product stewards, attempt to communicate information about risk and hazards to manufacturers, consumers, regulators, or the public at large.
It’s critical to assess both the hazard and risk components of consumer products. “Hazard evaluation is definitely important because that’s how you understand whether or not a chemical has a potential for toxicity,” said ChemRisk’s Andrey Massarsky, PhD. He added that this is especially the case during consumer product development, “because you would want to avoid putting any chemicals that may have a hazard [in the product]. And if you’re able to substitute them with less hazardous or non-hazardous chemicals, that would be even better.”
Sometimes, however, using a hazardous substance is unavoidable, or a hazard may be discovered at a point when consumers or workers have already been exposed. Then, product stewards must perform a risk assessment to determine the likelihood of harm. “The mere presence of a hazardous chemical in a product does not mean that you will have a risk by using that product,” said Massarsky.
Yang, Massarsky, Garnick, and their other ChemRisk colleagues frequently work with clients to assess and communicate risks associated with consumer products throughout their life cycles. “At the end of the day,” Yang said, “we want to make sure that products are safe for consumers as well as workers that have to handle these products.”

Yang, Garnick, and Massarsky will host Session J2, “Understanding Hazard Versus Risk Nuances of Consumer Products,” on Wednesday, October 18, 2023, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., Eastern time.

Browse other notable PSX sessions on the next page.