10 ways to detect true green design in tech

More electronics companies are pitching their products as being green. The products are touted as being smaller, having more functions than previous generations, and made without lead or cadmium. But how can you tell if these claims are valid?

Have the electronics companies actually trained their product-launch teams in leading Design for Environment principles? Have they embedded competitive-level DfE in all of their products? Or are their products simply following Moore’s Law for greater computing power in more efficient packages? Are they just compliant with mandated law?

Here are 10 ways to detect whether the products you’re considering buying -- or those your company is selling -- are the real deal when it comes to Design for Environment.

1. Hazardous substances

Six hazardous substances are restricted by RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive) and 22 by REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) so far. Just following regulations, such as restricting lead and cadmium, is not pushing the DfE envelope. By contrast, a proactive company already may have removed REACH’s 144 candidate substances of very high concern. Or, it could have publicly restricted hundreds of substances, as Nokia did years ago. When I visited Nokia’s Finnish headquarters in 2008, I asked a sustainability manager why the company insisted on restricting 200 substances, rather than just the six prohibited in 2006 by the European Union’s RoHS. "Our stakeholders’ research reported that these 200 substances are harmful for people and the environment, and we don’t want them in our products,” she said.

2. The products are designed for long life 

The product you are considering may have nine DfE attributes, but if it will be useless to you and everyone else in 18 months, then a critical DfE attribute is missing. Smart-DfE products are designed for easy upgrade, such as through the Internet or by easy swap-and-self-install, efficient refurbishment -- locally is best -- and for reuse by second, third and fourth customers. Recycling, which itself requires transportation, energy, water and waste, can be postponed. Here’s a hint: If the product is leased instead of sold, the company’s smart CFO -- knowing to maximize the years that the leased product generates revenue -- may insist that the products are designed and built to be in demand for 10 to 20 years or more.

3. Smaller, lighter and more functional than competing products

Let’s say the DVD player you are considering buying today is half the size and weight of the model you bought a dozen years ago, plus it has twice the features. The current model design likely benefited from technology's natural course toward miniaturization, owing to today's more powerful semiconductors, smaller components and denser circuitry. If, however, you can find a player that’s one-quarter the size and weight -- or an inch larger than a DVD disk and attaches to your phone -- and it records onto a disk, then that player likely benefits from original and competitive DfE.

4. Economic disassembly 

Are you, like me, tired of seeing “recyclable” on products that less than 1 percent of customers would recycle? DfE can make products easy and profitable to recycle. Modular design, minimal fasteners opened with standard or no tools, and easy-to-separate recyclable materials are among the dozen hallmarks of products designed for economic disassembly. Whether the product is being upgraded, refurbished or recycled, time and materials for disassembly must be minimized. Plus, the recyclate must have enough value to incentivize consumer and corporate customers to actually recycle the products.

5. A significant percentage of renewable and recycled materials

Are the materials grown? Perhaps the keyboard is made of bamboo, rather than of petroleum-based plastic. As in today’s automobiles that deploy used plastic bottles, clothing and other materials in seats and door insulation, are some materials in the electronic product post-consumer? Some electronics designers are repulsed by incorporating used materials and components in their high tech products, but it’s time to get over that, save a lot of money and realize that customers don’t care so long as the product works.

6. The packaging is scant, absent or returnable

Perhaps the packaging in which you bought your laptop is a fully usable messenger bag, as in HP’s award-winning design. Or when you purchase the product at the store, the cashier takes the packaging to send back to the manufacturer in returning trucks. Is air the primary ingredient of the packaging? After all, so long as the packaging passes drop tests, what’s the ROI of spending needless money and assembly time on packaging that’s too large and expensive to ship?

7. DfE training and performance required for all designers -- and the company actually designs its own products

DfE principles are not incredibly complicated, but neither are all of them intuitive. Designers actually need to learn them, either online or in-person. They need to know more than 20 ways to make a product more energy-efficient. Once executives understand that DfE principles take costs out and make products more competitive, DfE training will be table stakes, or a required minimum.

8. The products meet and surpass the highest eco-standards in the land 

Where is the executive team’s bar for sustainability? Unfortunately, the bar is typically even with complying to regulations. Sony and Philips are two examples of companies pushing the bar to competitive heights, thus reducing the cost of goods sold and getting customers’ attention. Executives should think of it from an economic perspective: Would they rather pay employees to struggle to meet five successively more stringent environmental regulations -- and risk their burnout -- or train them to jump five levels up, feeling pride in their competitive products?

9. Compensation packages or other rewards tied to aggressive DfE targets

Does the electronics company give prizes to engineers whose designs are the most energy-efficient, weigh the least, have the most renewable materials and pass drop tests for packaging with scant, grown or recycled packaging? How about a cash award for the designer who figures out how to deliver 110 percent of the desired functionality without bringing any new hardware to the market? In Europe, employee incentives tend to be recognition or contributions to environmental causes in the winning employees’ names.

10. All new products -- not just the flagship -- are designed with DfE attributes. 

Starting off with an all-out DfE product is fine. But then all next-generation products should be equally endowed with environmental efficiency. STMicroelectronics, for example, has a goal that all products will include DfE and life cycle assessments by 2015.

The sooner that consumers, corporate customers, employees, distributors and executives get savvy on the elements of real DfE, the more likely these touted products actually will be green.

Keyboard image by HandmadePictures via Shutterstock