The Big Picture
From the moment a company’s product development team puts pencil to paper, a product’s environmental impact is decided. That initial research and design phase is the first and best time to start a product down the path of reduced environmental impact. Through a process of green design, ecodesign, or design for environment, a company can commit to solving environmental problems before they start.
In the design for environment process, designers may look at the source, makeup, and toxicity of raw materials; the energy and resources required to manufacture the product; and how the product can be recycled or reused at the end of its life. Balanced with other product considerations such as quality, price, producability, and functionality, eco-designed products are environmentally and economically viable alternatives to traditional products. Smart green design creates products that use less energy and natural resources; products that can be recycled easily or reused; and products that promote energy and materials efficiency in consumers’ lives.
Various regulations are nudging green design concepts to the forefront of many designers’ and product developers’ minds: several European countries require manufacturers to take products back from consumers at the end of the product’s life, creating an incentive for manufacturers to design products for easy recycling or reuse. Initiatives in the United States include the Extended Product Responsibility concept, which spreads responsibility for a product’s environmental impact along the chain from designer to manufacturer to distributor to retailer. Future legislation will push for products that have built-in end-of-life options, requiring designers and manufacturers to take responsibility for how a product is dealt with at its end.
Getting Down to Business
- Southcorp Whitegoods, an Australian appliance manufacturer, developed a new line of Dishlex dishwashers that use fewer than 18 liters of water for a full load. The manufacture of the new dishwashers requires fewer materials, with each unit weighing up to seven kilograms less than previous models. Plastic components are coded to make recycling and disassembly easier; other major components are designed for easy disassembly. Other features of the new dishwashers allow for low-temperature washing, enzyme-based detergents, and water-saving devices.
- Herman Miller, a furniture designer and manufacturer, designs for the environment with an emphasis on high-quality, durable furniture. This commitment to durability means replacements will be needed less frequently. Most Herman Miller work chairs contain recycled content, some as much as 77%. Many Herman Miller products and components are recyclable; parts made of polypropylene, steel, and aluminum are 100% recyclable. Guidelines developed by Herman Miller’s Earth Friendly Design Task Force ensure that products are easily disassembled, making them a snap to recycle.
- Xerox Europe, an arm of Xerox Corporation, commits to green design through designing waste-free products and waste-free plants. Xerox Europe products feature these green design elements: reduced materials mix, resulting in easier separation of materials for recycling; parts commonality, enabling parts reuse; products free from packaging; reusable or recyclable pallets; life-cycle analysis and life-cycle costing that help to evaluate the environmental impact and cost of products; and document productivity, which reduces material consumption and benefits consumers of Xerox products. More than 90% of Xerox products are designed to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star energy-efficiency requirements.
- Designers set the tone for product features and functions. Universities and professional design associations offer cutting-edge green design training programs.
- Manufacturers contribute to the design process by determining what’s producable, determining efficient manufacturing processes, and by working with designers on other product elements. Manufacturers must buy in to the green design concept and commit to working within the manufacturing constraints on green-designed products.
- Consumers create demand for green products. Many consumers must be educated about environmental attributes through product labeling and marketing, while others have let companies know they will only spend money on products that have been designed for the environment.
- Resource efficiency by designing products that use less energy and raw materials in production -- and consume less energy and resources in use.
- Reduced cost from using energy and materials more efficiently.
- Increased profit from more efficient products, niche consumer marketing, and extending products’ lifespan.
- Improved whole systems function -- such products have a more efficient manufacturing process, last longer and work better for end users.
- Increased cooperation among designers, suppliers, and manufacturers can lead to new innovations and better products.
- Shorter production time due to increased efficiencies.
- Initial costs arise from investment in time, materials, new equipment, and other items.
- Resistance to change -- manufacturers, suppliers, and even consumers may resist changing a product design, having to work with new materials, doing things a new way, or seeing their product look a different way.
- Consumer indifference -- if the product is an unknown brand, or significantly more expensive than a non-green product, consumers may opt not to buy.
- Fill a consumer need. While many consumers might buy a product for its green attributes, most will not buy a product that does not meet a specific need. Determine what that need is and how to design a green product to fill that need.
- Establish a design team of designers, marketers, manufacturers, suppliers, and others along the production chain to develop design ideas.
- Evaluate the options by using life-cycle analyses, cleaner technologies, substitute assess-ments, and other tools. These tools will help determine production costs and precisely which product components should be designed with environmental attributes.
- Market the product and work to get it certified as environmentally friendly by ecolabel agencies such as Green Seal. Many consumers choose products that meet environmental standards and like proof that a product meets those standards.
- Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies (University of Tennessee, 311 Conference Ctr. Bldg. Knoxville, TN 37996; 865-974-8979; 865-974-1838; email@example.com) pioneered the concept of extended product responsibility and conducts research on green production processes and products. The center has produced reports based on research on automobile, printing, and computer display design and life-cycle assessments.
- Center for Design, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (GPO Box 2476V Melbourne, Vic 3001 Australia; 61-03-9925-2362; 61-03-9639-3412; firstname.lastname@example.org) offers programs and services related to ecodesign. Their EcoReDesign program is a collaboration with Australian industry to facilitate green design.
- Center for Sustainable Design (University College Faculty of Design, Falkner Rd. Farnham, Surrey, GU9 7DS; 44-01-252-892772; 44-01-252-892747; email@example.com) provides training and practical applications in green design through conferences, seminars, workshops, and consulting programs. CfSD publishes training manuals, guidelines, reports, and the "Journal of Sustainable Product Design."
- Green Design Consortium, sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Initiative, (5000 Forbes Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15213; 412-268-3645; firstname.lastname@example.org) is a consortium of manufacturer members that work with the GDI to develop new products and technologies. The consortium can provide research ideas, give access to research, and supply life-cycle analysis software and other tools.
- McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry specializes in green design and offers design services and sustainable design information.
- O2 Global Network (718-399-7621; email@example.com) is an international ecodesign association fostering green design through workshops, ecodesign tips, and other strategies.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment Program (Office of Pollution Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, 401 M St. SW Mail code 7403 Washington, DC 20460) helps businesses incorporate environmental considerations into the design and redesign of products through pollution prevention. Industries participating in the program include computer display, garment and textile care, industrial/institutional laundry, auto refinishing, supplier, wall paints, adhesives in foam furniture and sleep products, lithography, flexography, metal finishing, screen printing, printed wiring board, and PETE alliance.
Just as good design is the cornerstone of a successful product, green design is the cornerstone of a good, green product. Emerging trends suggest that green is the way to go; producers and manufacturers can step ahead of legislation requiring manufacturer responsibility for a product’s disposition by designing it well to begin with.