Tuesday, 15 October 2013


This section describes what is meant by “sustainability” and what you need to know about this concept. It starts out broadly, outlining why sustainability is important to the world, then what it means in the context of business, and finally why it is important in your role as a designer, engineer, product specialist, or other type of product design professional.


Definitions of Sustainability

Sustainability can be quite a malleable term. While most people understand its intention intuitively, it’s difficult to actually pin down since it can cover so many domains. The World Commission on Environment and Development, known more popularly as the Brundtland Commission, created one of the best-known and often used definitions:

The Natural Step goes on to lay out four system conditions, derived from the laws of thermodynamics, through which such a state can be achieved:

"In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing...
...concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust,
...concentrations of substances produced by society,
...degradation by physical means.
And, in that society. . .
...people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs."
"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Scope of Sustainability

As can be seen in the definitions above, sustainability represents a balanced interaction between the human-built and natural worlds. This interaction is often expressed as having three components: environment, social equity, and economy. The relationship between each of these elements is often represented as either a Venn diagram, with sustainability at the intersection, or as concentric circles, reflecting a layering of domains. This second case reflects the more realistic perspective that a healthy economy depends on a healthy society, both of which rely on a healthy environment. Sustainability occurs when all three are thriving.

Sustainable Company

Sustainable companies reflect the same balance of economic, social, and environmental responsibility. They exist as business entities, but are a part of a system that relies on a healthy dynamic of man-made and natural elements. At their most basic level, businesses take inputs, process them (adding value), and generate outputs. That gives us the ideal of a truly sustainable company to strive for:

A truly sustainable company is one that:

Uses the waste of other processes as its input, and minimizes or eliminates the use of virgin materials extracted from the earth;
  • Creates output that can be used by other processes or returned to a natural state, and eliminates waste that can’t be used or returned to a natural state;
  • Uses the least amount of energy to achieve the desired outcome, and uses energy ultimately derived from renewable sources.
  • The value companies generate has traditionally been measured in purely financial metrics. However, it is becoming more common to reflect the value generated as a “triple bottom line.” Whether represented formally as a Corporate Social Responsibility report or more informally, companies interested in being sustainable now focus on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

Sustainability manifests itself in companies at a variety of levels, including:
  • Strategy – Some companies decide what to make or do based on sustainable business ideals. Stonyfield Farms has made social and environmental responsibility a key part of its business strategy since it began.
  • Supply chain & value webs – Walmart requires its suppliers to evaluate and disclose the full environmental impact of their products. There continues to be increased attention to so-called industrial ecology, which analyzes the material and energy flows within whole industrial systems, often extending far beyond the domain of a single business.
  • Operations – Decisions about how to make and move products increasingly reflect environmental impacts. In the case of the floor covering company Interface, what has become one of the real sustainable business success stories started with rethinking the social and environmental impacts of their operations. In many cases, companies have instituted Environmental Management Systems (EMS) have operationalized the tracking, documentation, and reporting of environmental impacts by the business. There is even a specific ISO standard (ISO 14001:2004) governing EMS.
  • Product development & design – Companies have incorporated sustainability into their new product development process in ways ranging from specifically creating “green” products (e.g., Brooks Green Silence, with its BioMoGo biodegradable midsole) to the reduction of the environmental impact of its “regular” products (e.g., Apple’s use of a recyclable aluminum enclosure for its Mac Pro computer).

The majority of this guide will focus on product-level sustainability considerations, but it’s helpful to keep in mind that sustainability isn’t the domain of just one part of the business. In fact, a truly sustainable product can only exist within the context of a much broader system that supports its positive impact on people, planet, and profit.

The Many Faces of Sustainable Design

Now that you have a bit of background on sustainability, let’s talk about sustainable design. Sustainable design is the term we’ve chosen to represent the intelligent application of the principles of sustainability to the realm of engineering and design. This guide focuses on products and similar manufactured components, but the same principles can also apply to architecture, civic planning, and other realms of the “built.”

Furthermore, “sustainable design” is just one term used to describe the use of sustainability principles in the design and development of commercial and industrial products. Other often-used terms include sustainable engineering, environmentally sustainable design, eco-design, and green design. All are essentially synonymous for most purposes.

There are however several terms related to this topic that have distinct meanings. Designers interested in sustainability-focused tools and techniques will find these concepts useful to at least know about, if not incorporate in their work. For more information on each, see the Appendices.

Design for Disassembly

Sometimes shortened to DfD, this is a design approach that enables the easy recovery of parts, components, and materials from products at the end of their life. Recycling and reuse are noble intentions, but if a product cannot be disassembled cleanly and effectively they are impossible, or at least cost prohibitive to achieve.

Design for the Environment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created the Design for the Environment (DfE) program in 1992 to decrease pollution and the human and environmental risks that it entails. It recognizes consumer and industrial & institutional products deemed to be safer for human health and the environment through an evaluation and product labeling program. Furthermore, the program defines best practices in a variety of industries, and identifies safer chemical alternatives.

Product Stewardship

Also known as extended product responsibility (EPR), this approach is based on the principle that all those involved in the lifecycle of a product should share responsibility for reducing its environmental impact. It often results in voluntary partnerships among manufacturers, retailers, government, and non-government organizations to set up effective waste-reduction systems and practices. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Product Stewardship program “has primarily focused on end-of-life considerations as one means of encouraging more environmentally conscious design and greater resource conservation. However to address the full range of product lifecycle issues, the Product Stewardship program also works with other EPA programs, as well as various public- and private-sector stakeholders, to promote ‘greener’ design, greener product standards, and greener purchasing practices.”

Cradle to Cradle

William McDonough and Michael Braungart popularized the notion that product lifecycles should be considered not as cradle to grave, but as cradle to cradle. The key idea here is that there is no such thing as a “grave” at the end of use, since everything goes somewhere. As they say, there is no such thing as “away.” Given that, in order to be sustainable all of the elements of a product that has reached the end of its useful life should be designed to go somewhere where it can serve as the input to another system, a concept often characterized as “waste = food.” While product development processes may focus on cradle to gate, cradle to grave, or even gate to gate plans, effective lifecycle planning needs to find ways to close all possible loops.


Nature has spent millions of years developing some very interesting and effective solutions to a wide range of design challenges. Biomimicry is “the practice of designing materials, processes, or products that are inspired by living organisms or by the relationships and systems formed by living organisms.” Such inspiration comes in two forms, as either “challenge to biology” or “biology to challenge.” In the first case, a design challenge exists and designers search nature for potential solutions. The second case entails starting with an interesting biological property that researchers or scientists attempt to apply more broadly or commercialize. Note that just because a solution is based on nature doesn’t mean that it’s inherently healthy or sustainable. For instance, nature has created plenty of toxic substances that could be extremely harmful if misapplied.

Green Chemistry

Green chemistry focuses on reducing the generation and use of hazardous chemicals, decreasing pollution at its source. Paul Anastas and John Warner published the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in 1998 and set out the following design goal:

Chemical products and processes should be designed to the higest level of this hierarchy and be cost-competitive in the market.
  1. Source Reduction/Prevention of Chemical Hazards
  2. Reuse or Recycle Chemicals
  3. Treat Chemicals to Render Them Less Hazardous
  4. Dispose of Chemicals Properly

Green Marketing

Many companies find that promoting the environmental responsibility, or even just the benefits, of their products can be a powerful marketing angle. Touting the “green” aspects of existing products, processes, or systems has become almost the standard in many industries. Some companies’ messages actually outstrip their reality, leading to what is generally called “greenwashing.” As will be discussed later in the guide, there are now quite strict guidelines issued by the Federal Trade Commission about making “green” claims. When talking with sales and marketing people in their company, product designers will find it helpful to know what benefits of their sustainable design and engineering efforts can be claimed publicly.

To be continued...

Sources: Dassault Systèmes - SolidWorks Corp, EPA, Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, Interface Global.

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