A little more than six years ago we had our first client ask, “How can you help us make this product greener?” Someone at the top of that company was excited about sustainability, but no one below him had any idea how to actually do it. We said, “Uh … let us get back to you. ” Then we went out and did some research.
We discovered Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which promised to help us quantify the environmental impact of our design concepts. We thought, “Perfect, this is exactly what we need —we’ll do some LCA and call it a day.” Those of you who are familiar with LCA are already laughing at us. LCA is a huge endeavor that combines multiple areas of expertise, including chemistry, biology, environmental science, and supply chain management. It’s not the sort of thing you pick up in an afternoon.
That’s also true of developing a sustainability strategy — it’s a long, arduous process of gradually changing the way you do things. We’ve been at it for six years and despite being pretty naive early on, we’ve been able to develop a process that allows us to work quickly to improve a product’s environmental performance.
We’re still learning as we go, but we’ve compiled what we think are some essentials for product designers and companies who want to get started developing their own sustainable product design process.
1. Choose a tool, any tool. …
Choosing from the surplus of software packages, books, and procedures that promise to help you understand your environmental impact can be paralyzing. Early on, however, almost anything will teach you more than you already know, so it’s best to just pick one and try it out.
We got started with a program called Sustainable Minds that was one of the first LCA tools tailored for designers. When it came out a lot of people compared it to “turbo tax” but for LCA. It’s Web-based, the interface is simple, and much of the complexity of what’s going on is hidden, but it’s still able to give powerful insights into your design.
These days we use a range of tools including Sustainable Minds, SimaPro, LIDS Wheel, and B Impact Assessment, to name a few. As you get farther along, you’ll add to your tool kit, but you have to start somewhere.
2. Choose a first test project, then a second. Rinse and repeat.
The advice here is similar: Pick one and dive in. It’s very hard to think about these things in abstract terms, and you can’t form a broader strategy until you have a better understanding of your current impact. Start by mapping out a preliminary process, then execute, evaluate, and repeat until you have enough case studies to begin to inform the bigger picture. After the first two to three projects you’ll have a much better idea of where and how you can improve. Eventually the strategy comes complete with ROI calculations, a locked down process, and a list of marketing claims you can actually back up.
3. Start LCA early in the design process.
Historically LCA could only be done once a product was in production because you had to first quantify the whole supply chain. This is a lost opportunity for product designers who know that the greatest potential for disruptive innovation is early in the design process and for clients, who can save big on costs when improvements are worked out early.
To do so we recommend creating a screening-level LCA that approximates much of the data using published datasets such as EcoInvent or the GaBi database. We use average data to benchmark the LCA, build a model, and fill it with assumptions. Those assumptions get more accurate as you move farther along in the design process. Continue to correct them, and by the time you reach production you’ll have a nearly complete in-depth LCA with very little chance for surprises.
4. Nest your sustainability process into your overall design process.
Develop your new practice so it’s easily in synch with other phases in your design and engineering process. We’ve grafted ours right onto our existing processes. At each stage gate we review the refined LCA model along with other phase deliverables. This parallel path heightens efficiency and increases the cross-pollination of ideas between disciplines.
5. Expect to scrap your initial assumptions.
Early on you’ll discover frequently that your assumptions are wrong. With one project, we were apprehensive about our impact because we were using extra plastic to improve the sealing performance of an enclosure.
Adding material seemed like the wrong direction until we calculated that the majority of the environmental damage came not from the housing but from the PCB and batteries inside. Extending the life of those high impact components more than offset the impact of the extra resin.
In another case, we assumed that focusing on device size and materials would be the low-hanging fruit. We were wrong. The power consumption turned out to be the biggest issue and our time was best spent designing the appliance to use less electricity. (This is the kind of obvious misconception you’ll chuckle over in hindsight. Don’t be too hard on yourself.)
6. Look again.
Think you’re done? That’s the best time to optimize further. There’s always a little extra material you can take out of every product for more cost savings and improved environmental performance.
Finally, your pep talk ….
Ten years ago almost nobody was talking about corporate sustainability. Five years ago, CEOs began thinking of it as the next big thing. Ten years from now the companies who operationalized environmental performance in 2014 will be the norm. Everyone who waited longer will have fallen behind.
Take it from us: The hardest part is getting started, but each iteration’s takeaways are significant and significantly inform the next. It’s not going to happen overnight. The best thing to do is to start, well, yesterday.