Sustainable Design: Creating Products with Less Environmental Impact


Top business priorities for global manufacturers are pretty straightforward. Growing revenue, retaining customers, and reducing costs always top the list, however, improving sustainability has gained some traction in terms of business priorities. There is little doubt that environmental issues have become more recognized as a legitimate concern among the public (i.e. customers), and as result, manufacturers are taking a serious look at efforts to “green” up their act.

While there are a growing number of products on the market touted as being “environmentally friendly,” “green” or “sustainable,” the reality is that most of these products are not. According to a study conducted last year by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing and consulting firm, more than 95% of consumer products claiming to be “green” for one or many reasons were not.

By definition, sustainable means: “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Sounds great, however, nearly all products that use electrical power, energy from natural gas, materials from the earth, or transportation of any kind do not meet this definition as they all deplete resources and damage the environment.

How to Design with Sustainability in Mind

The key issues addressed by sustainability in product design are environmental issues, which include: carbon footprint, which refers to the production of greenhouse gases, the total energy consumed, and air and water pollution. Manufacturers trying to create sustainable products must first determine what their products are made out of and whether the materials have been assessed for their impact on human and environmental health.

Specialized tools and modules are being added to product data management (PDM) and product lifecycle management (PLM) systems to simplify material selection, perform upfront lifecycle assessment, and carbon/water impact analysis. Several CAD vendors are also providing their users with tools that enable them to assess the environmental impact of materials selections through exported bills of material (BOMs). These tools enable designers to conduct a BOM analysis for environmental performance, cost, and reliability, taking into account projected carbon emissions and energy use.

The EPA has also announced the availability of a new tool to help manufacturers to identify and use safer chemicals as part of its Design for the Environment program. The Chemical Alternatives Assessment tool provides a methodology for informed substitution.

Assessing the Big Picture: Lifecycle Analysis

If products are to be designed effectively with little or no negative environmental impact, then the designer must consider the impact of the product throughout its entire lifecycle. What this means is that the designers and engineers need to look at everything that happens in the production, transportation, use and final disposal of the product.

Fully assessing the lifecycle of products can be extremely time-consuming so it’s often difficult in design environments when time to market is critically important to the eventual success of the product. In these cases, there are tools available to facilitate the assessment. Eco-Indicator 99 is a method by which manufacturers—using a simple set of inventory tables and standard impact data for materials and processes—can perform lifecycle sustainability assessments.

There are several software packages on the market that streamlines the process by calculating an impact score, which is determined by looking at the individual impact of a product’s materials, manufacturing process, transportation mode, distance traveled, power usage, power source, and disposal method.

The Bottom Line

Though revamping product design processes to address sustainability issues can be expensive and time-consuming, some companies will find their efforts to be rewarding. A study of over 2,500 executives in Europe, North America and Asia conducted by Forrester Research found that while companies are not prioritizing sustainability, many are reaping its benefits. The results of the study indicated that while sustainability isn’t at the top of executives’ business priorities, the benefits of implementing “green” strategies could help them achieve their existing objectives.

Manufacturers will ultimately realize that they can retain more customers—identified in the study as a top priority—by keeping packaging to a minimum and by openly identifying the materials used in their products.  Beefing up recycling efforts can cut waste management costs. Using safer materials reduces the chance of costly recalls and the possibility of even more costly litigation.

There is growing evidence that an increasing number of manufacturers are moving onto “greener” pastures. According to the 2010 TerraChoice study, the percentage of products examined for the study that were determined to be truly “green” has increased from 2% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2010, and there were 73% more “green” products on the market in 2010 than in 2009.


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