Monday, November 30, 2015

Product Management - Design for Sustainability

Design for sustainability (D4S) is fast becoming a a baseline standard for new product design in several sectors. Construction industry has taken a lead in terms of defining standards for sustainable buildings and followed it up with certification programs. LEED Certification for buildings has become mainstream in the US and similar certification program from IGBC is taking roots in India.

2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference begins in Paris on November 30th 2015.  As world leaders talk and negotiate deals on global climate issues, we as product managers can do few things on developing sustainable products.

A truly sustainable product 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 manufacture the product and to achieve the desired outcome.

Today, Sustainability can no longer be just a buzz word. Today, Sustainability has to be the core in companies at a variety of levels starting at the highest levels.

1. Strategy. 
Some companies decide what to make or do based on sustainable business
ideals. Godrej Group has made environmental sustainability as a key part of its
business strategy. Godrej Properties - the real estate arm of Godrej has been a leader in Green buildings and is a sponsor of IGBC Green Building Certification program.

2. Supply chain. 
Retail companies such as Walmart requires its suppliers to disclose and evaluate full environmental impact of their products. Companies are now paying deep attention to industrial ecology, which analyzes all the material and energy required to create the product. This often extends beyond the domain of a single business and right to the basic sources of raw materials. For example, retailers such as Tata Chemicals is promoting Organic food products under the brand Tata Shakti, Starbucks is promoting Fair Trade Coffee etc.

3. Operations 
Decisions about how to make and move products increasingly reflect environmental impacts. Companies are now looking at all levels of operations to lower energy usage and now have created Environmental Management Systems (EMS), which have operationalized the tracking, documentation, and reporting of environmental impacts by day to day operations. The businesses can no longer hide from legal implications of negative environmental impacts. In case of several industries, there are several legal or regulatory requirement to adhere to minimum environmental practices.

4. Product development & design
Companies have incorporated sustainability into their new product development process in ways ranging from specifically creating "green" products. Sustainable products are those products that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and environment over their whole life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials until the final disposal.

Many faces of sustainable product design

Now that I have given a bit of background on sustainability, let's talk about sustainable product 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 of products.

The term "sustainable design" is just one holistic term used to describe the use of sustainability principles in the design and development of products. This includes sustainable engineering, environmentally sustainable design, eco-design, and green design.

When products are to be designed for sustainability, there are several factors that needs to considered during the product design stage:

1. Design for Environment
2. Design for Disassembly & Recycling
3. Design for Energy Efficiency
4. Design for Health & wellness
5. Green Marketing

Design for Environment 

The Objective here is to minimize pollution and thus reduce human and environmental risks that the product entails. It means designing products that should be safe (both during operation of the product and after disposal) for human health and the environment. It could mean use of green chemistry - products that leave no or minimum residues or chemical that are biodegradable etc.

This starts with identifying industrial & institutional products that are deemed to be safer for human health and the environment through an evaluation, define best practices and identify safer chemical alternatives.  

At this stage of product design, It also involves identifying use of sustainable raw material inputs for the product and also use of recycled raw materials.

Design for Disassembly

This design aspect is essentially to address the end-of-life phase of product by designing the product that is easy to disassemble and enable the easy recovery of parts, components, and materials from products for recycling at the end of their life.
Recycling and reuse are a good way to create a sustainable world, but it requires products that can be disassembled cleanly and effectively. Design at this stage is primarily focused on end-of-life considerations as one means of encouraging more environmentally conscious design and greater resource conservation.

Design for Energy Efficiency

Environmental impact of product over the lifespan of the product has to be considered. Products must be designed to minimize the environmental impact. Product must be designed to use minimize energy usage during its lifetime. Every version of product must review the energy usage and develop new technologies to reduce energy usage.

Design for Health & Wellness

All products have to be used by people and during its life span, the product must not emit any hazardous outputs that impact health & wellness of the operators. This includes chemical vapors, heat, light, noise or electromagnetic radiation which adversely impact the health & wellness of the operators. For example, design newer cell phones that emit lesser radiation.

Products that use volatile chemicals in form of adhesives or paints must be designed to use chemicals that emit less or does not cause any harm.

Green Marketing

Green Products can have a powerful advantage. Companies find that green products and  promoting the environmental responsibility/benefits of their products has a powerful marketing angle. Touting the "green" aspects of existing products, processes, or systems has immensely  benefit product marketing.

From product design perspective, it helps product designers and product marketing to work together to know what benefits of their sustainable design and engineering efforts can be claimed publicly.

Green Product Leadership  

Developing Green Products often requires taking a leadership position for the extended product supply chain. This requires voluntary partnerships among manufacturers, retailers, government, and non-government organizations to set up effective green supply chain systems and practices. For example, in case of cell phone batteries - it will require working with raw material suppliers and also product recyclers and environmental agencies.

Taking product leadership means encouraging more environmentally conscious design and greater resource conservation. Working with various public and private sector stakeholders, to promote 'greener' design, setting up greener product standards, and establishing greener purchasing practices.

From Green Product Leadership perspective, there are many ways to create environmentally sustainable business ecosystems. Sustainable design is just one aspect. Designing products for a broader purpose by matching user needs with right products that last for the lifetime of the customer needs, will eventually change customer behavior and sustainable designs can influence user behavior for a more sustainable use cases.

While designing green products, one must think in terms of whole systems, the ecosystem context, product service and the supply chain. Only then the product will be really "green" and help create a sustainable world.

Closing Thoughts 

We are now at the start of establishing an ecological civilization. The old thinking of industrial civilization that sees the relationship between humans and nature as opponents, and uses technology to tame the wild nature - must go away.

Sustainable products and Green engineering looks at the relationship between humans and nature as a harmonious symbiotic relationship.  


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