It isn’t Easy being Green: How Sustainability is Affecting Design


Kermit the Frog said it first, but it bears repeating: it isn’t easy being green. In today’s world, however, it might be the only way for manufacturers to go. It seems everyone these days is concerned about how they can positively impact the future of the environment and often that starts with the products they buy. Consumers are now increasing attracted to more “green” options, which in turn, is forcing organizations to reevaluate how they design and manufacture their products.

The stats certainly validate this trend. According to a study conducted by independent analyst firm, Verdantix, corporate spending on innovation efforts to push product-level sustainability in 2012 will reach $12 billion in the U.S. and $1.6 billion in the U.K. Another study conducted by Earth 2017 estimates that sustainable products will reach one trillion dollars per year in global annual revenues in 2012, and that number is projected to skyrocket to $10 trillion by 2017.

Governments globally are doing their part to encourage sustainability through increased legislation and regulations. According to the Verdantix study, requirements for legislation such as REACH in Europe and RoHS in the U.K., along with increased pressure from consumers, are driving companies’ efforts to ensure that their products are greener. Environmental labeling requirements in France, in place by the end of 2012, will also encourage product-level sustainability initiatives.

It is corporations, not governments, however, that are driving the push towards sustainability today, as they continue to harvest increasingly significant profit growth through design and process innovations that cut production, delivery, packaging and disposal costs while also reducing a company’s and/or product’s environmental footprint. Look no further than consumer giants Wal-Mart, GE, and Coca Cola for evidence of this trend.

To design with sustainability in mind, companies must consider the lifecycle impacts of every phase of design, from the raw material extraction through to disposal at the end of the product’s life. Ultimately, products that are designing and manufactured using less energy, less material and/or sustainable materials, can be more easily disassembled for reuse or recycling, or that are made using less toxic chemicals or processes will offer manufacturers a competitive advantage.

Though designing with sustainability in mind requires the efforts of all members of the extended design team, it really starts with the design engineers.  While they still must focus on designing innovative products, they must now also be cognizant of selecting green materials and parts; green manufacturing processes that deliver energy savings; designing light packaging for recycling; and ultimately on the safe disposal of products at the end of their lifecycle. All these criteria must be taken into consideration at the very earliest stages of design.

What customers really think about “green” products

A study conducted by Accenture, a global management consultancy, entitled “The Value of the Sustainable Supply Chain: What Do Consumers Think?” looked at customers’ perceptions of companies’ sustainability policies. The study found that customers globally are concerned with companies’ environmental and sustainability policies. Nearly two-thirds of the consumers surveyed said their perception of a company is strongly influenced by these policies, with only 10 percent saying such policies has little or no influence.

Interestingly, the consumers’ geography greatly affected these attitudes. More than 80% of Chinese and Brazilian consumers say their perceptions are strongly influenced by a company’s policies, while only 40% of U.S. and the U.K. felt the same way. It is suggested that the rapid industrialization of these countries—and a lack of accompanying regulatory protections—have raised environmental concerns.

Tools that help

Today there are many early-stage, eco-impact assessment tools available on the market. Many of these incorporate 3D modeling, analysis, and simulation programs and offer a comprehensive approach to sustainable product design with sacrificing product performance and quality.

These tools enable designers to identify and incorporate more sustainable materials in products upfront during the design phase; provide guidance in the selection of greener materials or components throughout the supply chain; and identify sustainability “hot spots” (aspects of how the product was created, manufactured or used that score high in negative environmental impact) throughout the product’s lifecycle.

In addition to eco-design tools, companies should also consult with their engineering software vendor for help in conducting an internal “sustainability audit” that can provide insight into where their product development efforts might benefit most from a sustainability makeover.

Ultimately it will require a change in the way engineers are trained and educated to bring the sea change needed to ensure that sustainability is a key objective in the future of design. Universities are beginning to introduce curriculum that includes designing with environmental impact in mind.

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