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Why STMicroelectronics is going all in with sustainable design

In the 12 years I've written about and taught design-for-environment (DfE), I've wondered why all corporate executives don't recognize its obvious benefits. Those include more efficient and competitive products, lower manufacturing and operating costs, reduced supply chain risks and greater protection of people, communities and planetary health.

I learned last month that semiconductor giant STMicroelectronics is progressing toward a 2015 goal to leverage eco-design and life cycle assessments (LCA) in 100 percent of its products. I decided to pose this question to Alain Denielle, the company's group vice president of corporate sustainable development.

He first explained why they did it.

"After 14 to 15 years of environment programs at STMicro," he said, "continuing this journey without tough, objective eco-design and LCAs would be greenwashing."

Then he revealed how.

Alain DenielleWhy eco-design and LCAs are so important

STMicroelectronics and the global tech industry need to take care of products' impacts on the environment. When an environmental program is mature, Denielle says, it's necessary to look at any environmental issues caused by products put on the market.

"We had this in mind five years ago and studied the best way to continue this environmental journey," Denielle said. "Product responsibility is key for us. We have the resources and we need to lead this process."

Assessing products' environmental impacts is a endless journey because of the need to assess a continuing stream of new technology and new products. Despite whether it's conducting LCAs for food, cars, home appliances or microcontrollers, a company needs to create its own tools and calculations from its facilities, complete supply chain, chemicals used and after-market products -- from cradle to grave, Denielle said.

STMicroelectronics needed a process and tools to assess life cycle impacts and train R&D and designers to use them.  

"LCA is a process, more than a singular tool, for which you need a company decision and tool box," he said. "It's my deep feeling that if you don't take on full LCAs, it's greenwashing."

Herding executives toward sustainability

STMicroelectronics began its environmental sustainability journey in the early 1990s, and by 1995 already had published an environmental report. In 2010, Denielle led senior executives in a methodology to determine which priorities the company should set to continue the journey, along with next steps.

The executives built four pillars -- people, environment, product and community -- with 22 priorities, each with precise objectives. The "product" pillar includes the following objectives: product stewardship, customer satisfaction, innovation management, conflict-free minerals -- all key issues for ST's stakeholders -- and the 100 percent eco-design objective.

Bringing others onboard

After setting the 2015 goal of using eco-design for every new product, it was difficult to convince all internal stakeholders that success would be impossible without LCAs. Within three months after work began toward the goal, it became clear to Denielle's team that conducting LCAs for all STMicroelectronics products would need to be the first step.

He gained additional LCA resources for his team, R&D, designers, manufacturing and product groups. After receiving the CEO's commitment, Denielle and his team followed STMicroelectronics's standard implementation process, which includes training people, coordinating, leading and validating.

"After that," he said, "it was quite easy to convince people to use the LCA tools and process."  

Differentiation from other semiconductor companies

Some of STMicroelectronics's competitors also have worked on sustainability issues since the 1990s, including Intel and Texas Instruments. I asked Denielle what is different about STMicroelectronics's approach.

"The [sustainability] journey is in place everywhere in all the companies, but we see differences in the maturity and number of years," he said. "Very few companies have such systems and strategies (including eco-design) as we have, validated by top executives with commitment, devoted resources and energy to deploy so many objectives year after year."

It's not by chance at STMicroelectronics, he said. It started with the vision supported at the CEO level.

CEO commitment

Before the interview, I noted that Carlo Bozotti, STMicroelectronics's current CEO, signed the company's sustainability excellence and sustainability reports. I asked Denielle if he feels that a successful sustainability program is contingent upon having a CEO who is passionately committed to sustainability, compared to a CEO who simply will sign documents provided.

"Signing is easy; getting the resources is another story," Denielle said. "If you are given the appropriate resources, it means something clear and strong. It was the case during the years with STMicroelectronics's previous CEO, and also is now with Bozotti putting the resources and people in place to do this."

Image courtesy of STMicroelectronics.

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