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Integrating Sustainable Product Design and LCA (Part 3 of 3)

PackageSmart is an example of a Simplified LCA (SLCA) tool. | Image credit: EarthShift

Product designers seeking to create more sustainable products need tools that reflect the rapidly iterative process of product development. This is the third in a three-part series by EcoShift, a sustainability and LCA consultancy, and Carbon Design Group, a product design and development consultancy. The first article focused on the challenges product development teams face as they step up to sustainability, and the second article looked at how current LCA tools help to meet some of these challenges and fall short on others. At the end of the last editorial, we laid out our requirements for integrating sustainability and LCA principles into product design, which are a set of practices and tools that:

  • Initiate the design process with eco-design principles
  • Recognize the iterative process of design
  • Allow designers to easily access and aggregate data about the impacts of materials
  • Provide sufficient accuracy to make LCA information useful
  • Store collective designer knowledge and make it easily available
  • Incorporate cost estimates associated with alternative designs

Based on these requirements, this article will provide a counterpoint for traditional LCA and a roadmap for integrating a modified LCA approach into the product design process.

Incorporating the Practice

It’s undeniable that the mechanics of building sustainability into a product design process may vary somewhat based on whether the team is made up entirely of industrial designers, or if the team handles the full process from research through design and engineering. Regardless, one point applies across the board: It is vital for sustainability to be woven in seamlessly throughout the process. Perhaps the best approach is not to think of sustainable design as an additional process or discipline, but rather as an expanded perspective and toolset for existing disciplines, and a common “language” or process that connects them all. Just as designers always need to think about how a product is made and engineers need to understand how it will be used, we all need to think about sustainability and impact throughout the process. When sustainability is seamlessly integrated into a product’s development, the final product is improved because additional costs are minimized (or saving is achieved!) and society benefits from more sustainable solutions.

To illustrate, we’ve outlined how sustainable design and LCA can be folded into the traditional product design process, focusing on four stages of product development:

Stage 0: Pre-Design — Reframing the Problem. Ideally, this process of incorporating sustainability begins right from the very start. Rather than asking, “How do we make this product more sustainable,” sustainability becomes an additional lens to understand the problem the product is trying to solve, and asks if there’s another way to solve it. Is a physical product even needed? Would a service solve the problem? While these decisions may happen before the design team is engaged, the process of reframing the problem and solution early on can perhaps lead to the greatest reduction in a product’s environmental impact. At this point, eco-design principles are often more useful than LCA as they provide guide rails that steer decision makers to more sustainable solutions.

Stage 1: Design Ideation — Discovery LCA. In the initial phases of design, which often involve the researchers and industrial designers, teams can use a combination of available information to define potential product impact issues and guide the general design process accordingly. We call this “Discovery LCA,” or a process of gathering relevant information and using lifecycle thinking without actually conducting an LCA. Key sources of Discovery LCA information include:

  • Application of general eco-design principles
  • LCA information from published literature to understand hotspots for a product category
  • Databases in Streamlined or Simplified LCA (SLCA) tools
  • Knowledge from previous LCA or SLCA experiences within the firm

Discovery LCA serves as an attempt to assess the different life cycle stages in very broad strokes to see where the biggest impact areas may be. By identifying the most potent “levers” to push, we can better focus our eco-design and LCA efforts through design and engineering. This process can debunk or confirm preconceived notions on what is important and what is not. In general, traditional LCA tools will not be used extensively at this stage, since specific materials or processes have not yet been selected. However, such tools may be useful at this point to extract some very general information on certain material classes. This may help exclude certain design options due to their high potential impact.

Stage 2: Design Refinement — Streamlined or Simplified LCA (SLCA). The SLCA process in product development begins in earnest during the design refinement stage as a final design approach is selected and industrial designers begin to collaborate with either internal or external engineering teams to finalize and engineer a design. In this stage, we recommend using SLCA in tandem with the normal, iterative product design process, with additional focus on SLCA when materials and processes are selected, refined and finalized. Throughout this stage, SLCA information about the impacts of various materials, processes and life cycle phases will be used as considerations in refining the product design.

This sounds good in theory, but in practice it is difficult to implement.

First, there is the question of who is best positioned to manage the SLCA process. This will vary from team to team. For teams where the engineering disciplines “own” the evolving Bill of Materials (BOM) and are deeply involved in selecting specific materials and processes to create a product, they are best positioned to manage the SLCA process. Mechanical engineers, with their heavy involvement in manufacturing decisions, are often ideally suited to be the locus of the SLCA process. Electrical engineers, however, will be very useful in understanding the impact of the use phase in relationship to other life cycle phases in order to determine whether minimizing electrical power demands is of critical importance. At more industrial-design-focused firms, a lead designer or project manager for a given project may have the necessary big-picture view to assess the impact that various sustainability decisions will have on the final product. This approach depends on the lead designer having enough LCA experience, and close enough contact with team members to transmit this information rapidly and frequently during iterations of product designs.

Second, the various tools and databases have pros and cons, mostly having to do with cost, time commitment and accuracy. Commercial SLCA tools such as SolidWorks Sustainability or Sustainable Minds may prove to have some usefulness, are quick to use, and are generally inexpensive. But both have clear drawbacks, such as limited functionality and data limitations, both of which can make an SLCA result an inaccurate reflection of reality.  

Another solution would be a custom Excel-based tool, which could provide both speed and useful/accurate information. Such a tool could focus first on the most frequently used material groups and processes. At a firm such as Carbon, there are about 25 material groups used very frequently, and perhaps another 75 that are used less frequently. For processes, the numbers are about 15 frequently used processes and another 50 less frequently used. For firms dealing with similarly low numbers of materials and processes, it makes sense to identify and collect high-quality data to distinguish material variations within these groups, rather than rely on generalized data. Such a tool will support a quick and iterative SLCA approach, as well as allow for data to be added to the system in order to create a more refined LCA approach over time and store team knowledge.

Stage 3: Refining, Storing and Sharing LCA Knowledge. The information and critical learnings gleaned through the SLCA process should feed back into future product development. This would be the stage at which a full LCA may be warranted to either refine the design for enhanced sustainability or accurately make claims about product impact. In addition, case studies on how the SLCA process was able to reduce product impacts could be stored in a knowledge base. The information learned by engineering teams should filter back to research and design teams so that, in future projects, initial stages of the design process have improved “tribal knowledge” to initiate a stronger eco-design process. The ability to annotate a database, whether in a new version of existing commercial software or in a custom Excel system, will help ensure that this knowledge base grows and expertise gained from each project informs future decisions. A wiki accessible by all involved could also be an effective way to capture and share this information if it can’t be integrated into a tool.

Looking Forward

Since sustainable design and LCA integration is still in a nascent stage, it is important for design teams to capture and share implementation stories so we all can make more effective progress in designing sustainable products. Additionally, the makers of current and future SLCA tools should keep in mind the integrated, iterative process of product design firms and build tools specific to their needs. Although LCA can be of great value when approaching the redesign of an existing product, designing new products is a different challenge, and can result in more sustainable solutions. As these tools become more nimble without sacrificing accuracy, and as collective knowledge is improved, designers will become more adept at creating more sustainable product solutions. 


James Barsimantov, Ph.D., Cofounder & COO at SupplyShift, received his doctorate in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz with a focus on environmental economics and resource management. James has extensive experience in greenhouse gas emissions quantification, climate action strategy, energy… [Read more about Dr. James Barsimantov]


Barb Mackintosh is the Director of Marketing Communications for Carbon Design Group, a well-known product design and development consultancy. Barb came to the design world by way of the television industry where she frequently worked on shows rife with…
[Read more about Barb Mackintosh]


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