Wednesday, 20 November 2013



Product development is a process that touches many parts of an organization and its various partners and customers. Sustainable design can generate innovative and attractive solutions, but they may never see the light of day unless the features and benefits can be communicated effectively.

This section outlines some ways to communicate the value of sustainable solutions to several of the major stakeholders involved with most products.

To Designers And Engineers Unfamiliar With Sustainable Design

As was discussed in the opening section of this guide, sustainability can mean many things to people. For perhaps the majority of designers it doesn’t actually mean anything in particular. Then there are the engineers who have the impression that it is “touchy-feely,” totally optional, not their problem, and too expensive. 

Instead of trying to go through all of the aspects of sustainable design, describing functional units, midpoint categories, and so on, it is best to focus on common values. For instance, it may make more sense to talk about sustainable design as a set of tools designed to identify and decrease waste. This waste can come in the form of excess energy, pollutants, material ending up in landfills, and other non-valuable by-products generated over the life cycle of an item. Most environmental impact metrics actually represent explicit or inherent waste in the system, so comparing product designs can usually lead to the identification of lower waste options.

In certain sectors, sustainable design represents a way to incorporate regulatory considerations in the design process. When certain chemicals or materials can not be used, such as in the case of the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), LCA tools can help identify useful alternatives that do not have the same hazardous impacts.

To General Management

In an organization striving to be a sustainable company, as described earlier, sustainable design need little explaining. In fact, in some cases there may be such lofty ambitions for sustainable design that the trade-offs identified by impact assessments need to be used to ground the conversation.

In companies where sustainability has become a focus, engineers have an excellent opportunity to engage with management around the goals and priorities that decisions about the products should reflect. Some tools and approaches may fit better than others, depending on expected outcomes. For instance, an industry-wide scorecard will be more useful than an in-depth LCA if the purpose is to benchmark and communicate with other companies. Furthermore, there needs to be discussion about how to handle trade-offs between environmental impacts and other considerations, such as cost. These are business decisions, which are exactly what engineering and management need to navigate together.

Sometimes product developers will need to discuss sustainability with business people in the organization who either don’t understand it or who don’t think it is a priority. As with engineers, the key is to translate environmental impact considerations into terms that these people do care about. In the case of management, two great examples are profitability and risk management.

Profit is the result of revenue minus cost. Therefore, anything that can be presented as either an increase in revenue or a decrease in cost will get people’s attention. Because most environmental impact studies do not show financial considerations, it may be necessary to extrapolate how more environmentally responsible products can increase revenue, perhaps through premium pricing or better competitive positioning. Cost reduction is an easier case to make since, as described above, excess environmental impacts are an expression of waste.

Environmental impacts also translate well into risks. The more that a company can do to decrease the negative impacts its products have on human health and the environment, the less likely to be unwanted repercussions for which the company could be held accountable. Of course, sustainable design doesn’t guarantee product safety. It is certainly possible to create environmentally-responsible, socially-irresponsible items, but even normal items still rely on attentive design (eco-designed baby toys can still be a choking hazard). Still, linking impact decisions to risk management can help clarify the importance of sustainable design.

To Other Parts Of The Supply Chain

In order to do a useful assessment, it is often necessary to get information from suppliers about the contents, processing techniques, manufacturing locations and so on for the components they provide. Sharing impact results with suppliers can help them adjust their own processes, or at least explain why the company is making certain sourcing and materials choices.

In some cases, organizations have the ability to demand that their suppliers abide by certain criteria. This can range from simply reporting their product’s composition to full environmental impact assessments. For example, Wal-Mart requires its suppliers to fill out a “Packaging Scorecard” as part of its efforts to reduce packaging throughout its supply chain. Although there aren’t specific thresholds they have to meet, Wal-Mart says that it will take the results into account in making sourcing decisions.

Of course this works in reverse if the company doing the sustainable design is itself a supplier. By generating parts that take into account environmental impact, they are influencing the sustainability of downstream products. It also makes it easier to comply with any impact requirements or guidelines the customer may have.

A common way to communicate impact data is through EPDs. Environmental Product Declarations are a standardized (ISO 14025/TR) representation of LCA results. They require a full ISO-compliant LCA and build on the resulting quantified impact data certified by an independent third-party. It is solely an internationally recognized format for presenting LCA data and not an evaluation or rating system.

To Sales & Marketing

There are many times when information about the environmental impact of a product never reaches the customer. If it is not relevant to the product’s purchase or use, the information can just stay “behind the scenes.” However, there are two main reasons why impact information is shared with customers: to promote its sustainability as a specific product benefit, and to show that the product meets certain standards. In both cases, it is very important that sales and marketing people understand the regulations that apply to making environmental impact claims.

In the first case, it is often tempting to promote a product’s sustainability. Green marketing is on the rise and many customers are starting to pay attention to environmental and social impacts in making buying decisions. Unfortunately, some organizations have gotten a little overzealous in their claims, often leading to accusations of “greenwashing.” As a result, the Federal Trade Commission has issued a set of Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, known more popularly as the Green Guides. These guides lay out principles and guidelines to help marketers avoid making claims about environmental benefits that are considered unfair or deceptive, as defined by Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The second way in which environmental impact information is represented to customers is through criteria-based labelling programs. First, it is important to note that there are ISO standards in the 14000 family that apply to environmental labelling and life cycle assessment. These specify how LCA results can be used and what labelling can claim. Products can be certified as ISO compliant and labelled as such. In addition, there are many criteria-based certification programs for which products can qualify. Well known examples include EnergyStar, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), and EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool).

Another important consideration in promoting the sustainability of a product is whether it is visibly “green” or whether its “greenness” is less apparent. A product that has an outer shell of bamboo, instead of plastic for instance, is in many ways its own advertisement. SimpleTech’s [re]drive external USB hard drive has some good energy-saving capabilities designed into it, but the fact that its case is largely bamboo helps customers identify it as a “green” option right away. Meanwhile, in many situations, the best ways to reduce a product’s impacts are invisible to the user and need much more explicit advertising. For instance, the EnergyStar label can help identify products that use less power than their nearly identical-looking peers.

To be continued...

Sources: Dassault Systèmes - SolidWorks Corp, EPA, American Federal Trade Commission.

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