Purpose – This paper investigates the challenges encountered by manufacturing companies in managing sustainability in new product development (NPD). It describes six case studies of manufacturers aiming for sustainability improvements but experiencing difficulties in implementing them. Design/methodology/approach – The paper starts with a literature study. Academic literature offers explanations as to why manufacturers want to implement sustainability in NPD, and suggests methods for such implementations. This paper employs the systems theory of control to build a research framework for analyzing the challenges. Empirical data are gathered through workshops and interviews with NPD managers in the case companies. Findings – In-depth analyses have provided three insights. First, the study shows that sustainability pressures and incentives in a firm's contexts can be fuzzy or even absent. The fuzziness of sustainability incentives is often neglected in the literature on sustainability and NPD. Second, the case companies face difficulties when setting the scope, goals, and ambitions that effectively direct NPD decisions and efforts toward designing sustainable products. Third, the results show that deploying sustainability methods, tools, and metrics, such as a life-cycle assessment or design for environment (DfE), are not sufficient to achieve sustainability in NPD. These findings call for research on sustainability and NPD processes in contexts where sustainability incentives and needs are fuzzy so as to acquire insights applicable to sustainable product development management that is proactive rather than reactive. Originality/value – Instead of focusing only on the output of sustainable products, this paper presents a more nuanced perspective on managing sustainability in NPD. Moreover, by adopting the holistic perspective of the systems theory of control, the authors challenge the assumption that there are already sufficient external incentives to force companies toward greater sustainability. Consequently, in the light of proactive sustainability management, the authors recommend three tracks for further research: organization and filtering of information concerning sustainability pressures and incentives in a firm's context; and how to manage sustainability proactively rather than reactively.

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