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Challenges to Integrating Sustainable Product Design and LCA (Part 1 of 3)

If there’s one common thread that binds product designers, researchers, and engineers, it’s the passion to create products that have a positive impact on the world. More and more, sustainability is an important facet of the impact we’re all striving to create. Consumers, retailers, and brands are quickly realizing that the best solutions are ones that are good for businesses, good for people, and good for the planet – forward-thinking product design firms already know this. The benefits of a slight reduction in the environmental impact of a single product that sells in the millions will quickly surpass the benefit of all the recycling and composting we could ever do in our offices.

While there are a variety of approaches to creating more sustainable products that have been around for years (e.g. the Eco-Strategy Wheel and Design for X), life cycle analysis (LCA) is now recognized as the most complete approach to depict a product’s impact.  As an assessment tool, LCA is excellent, and can provide high quality information for reporting as well as for planning project re-designs. But when you’re neck deep in the development process, the product itself is a moving target. There’s truth in the old adage that “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The problem is, you can’t measure it if it doesn’t yet exist.  

This article is the first of a three-part series based on a collaboration between Carbon Design Group, a product design and development firm, and EcoShift, a sustainability and LCA consultancy. It looks at the complex challenges of sustainable product design, the current state of LCA practices and tools, and our vision of integrating sustainability throughout the development process. In this introductory piece, we’ll focus on why and how product development consultancies are stepping up to sustainability, and the significant challenges that arise from this.

Staying Ahead of Demand

It’s a product development consultancy’s job to anticipate trends, whether they are user desires or client needs. As we’ve sought to develop sustainable design capabilities at Carbon, we’ve seen more and more clients espouse sustainability as an integral part of their brands. It’s also clear that regulatory requirements in this area will only increase in the coming years. For example, strict restrictions on handling electronic waste, already common in Europe, are now starting to hit the U.S. on a state-by-state basis.

History has shown that it’s much more costly for a company to comply with these regulations after they’ve passed, than to proactively implement best practices. The costs of compliance can include development expenses, fines, diminished brand value, and less cohesive product designs. Design and development consultancies need anticipate this demand to be able to guide clients through the process.

Intent versus Execution

Though it’s true that an ever-increasing number of companies have sustainability policies, few on the frontlines of product development are given the budget to explore more sustainable options. Good intentions notwithstanding, if sustainability isn’t one of the top priorities for a specific project, it can quickly fall off the radar. Further complicating this transition, we can never make clients feel pushed into services they either feel they don’t need, or have neither the time nor budget for. It’s therefore essential to focus on the business case for every shift toward more sustainable choices as we communicate the value of incorporating sustainability into the design process. As we’re able to illuminate the business case, sustainable product design will become more and more attractive.

Building a Capability

Truly innovative sustainable design requires a high level of capability that provides value to clients and is manageable for the consultancy. There are pros and cons of different approaches to building this capability. Hiring or educating one expert user might require the least initial investment, but that investment can be at risk of everything from job changes and family emergencies to lightning strikes.  Whatever the reason, if you lose your expert user, you lose the capability. Additionally, if stretched across the full range of project teams, a single expert user wouldn’t be able to focus in-depth on any of them.

On the other end of the investment spectrum is the option to educate the whole team. Even a rudimentary education of the full team impacts the company budget both as an expense for the cost of training and as an income reduction for lost billable time. Plus, there are ongoing expenses of educating new team members and keeping everyone current in a quickly evolving field. 

Yet another option is to partner with outside consultants who live and breathe the subject matter every day. This can be a way to jumpstart the process, but even the most experienced LCA consultants may need time to modify their resources and approaches to accommodate the realities of the swiftly moving product development process.

The best path may be a combination of all of three: educate the team enough to know what questions to ask, and leverage the insights of experts while developing internal resources.

More than a Data Management Issue

In developing a new product, knowledge and access to sustainability impact information is vital, but it’s just one facet of the more complex challenge. There are a myriad of decision points from product conception to release, and each one can affect a product’s ultimate sustainability impact. For every choice, there is a nearly endless array of interdependencies that change repeatedly during the iterative process of product development. Even if product designers, researchers and engineers had the time and resources to stop and consider the impact of a given part, that part may be just one of dozens, each with a variety of options to consider in terms of materials and processes. What a consultancy like Carbon needs is an input-to-decisions tool nimble enough to use while the product is still in flux. The state of the art of LCA tools and practices in this field is the topic of part two of this series. 

Ingrid Lin is a mechanical engineer at Carbon Design Group, a world-recognized product design and development company. She graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with Bachelor’s degrees in both Mechanical Engineering and in Manufacturing & Design Engineering. An international soul… [Read more about Ingrid Lin]

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]

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