The Four Facets of Next-Gen Environmental Design

The Four Facets of Next-Gen Environmental Design

Courtesy of Herman Miller

Environmental awareness is pervasive nowadays, due to anxieties over energy security and global warming. Businesses large and small are embracing sustainability and corporate citizenship. But we have not fully acknowledged the magnitude of the environmental challenges that we face. The throughput of materials in developed economies generates a hidden mountain of waste, depleting natural resources and threatening ecosystem integrity.

Even as we debate the merits of carbon regulations, leading scientists believe that we have already exceeded the "safe operating space" for humanity in three critical indicators-greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen flows, and biodiversity loss. These pressures, resulting from population and economic growth, threaten the resilience of vital natural resources as fresh water, soil, forests, and wetlands. And the rate of change is accelerating-new products and materials (think bio and nano) are emerging faster than scientists can study their impacts.

Finding a path to sustainable growth will require global collaboration and eco-innovation on an unprecedented scale. To accomplish this, we need to take a fresh look at a business practice called Design for Environment (DFE), which assures that new products are developed with a full understanding of lifecycle environmental considerations.

{related_content}Early adopters of DFE, such as 3M, DuPont and HP, have enhanced their competitiveness by introducing environmentally responsible products that provide exceptional customer value. But DFE cannot be practiced casually. Companies need to build upon past experiences and assemble a portfolio of systematic design strategies that can be codified, communicated through training, and systematically applied by product design teams. This will encourage a repeatable and consistent innovation process rather than anecdotal successes based on individual ingenuity.

The following summarizes four major categories of DFE guidelines, based on worldwide best practices compiled over a decade.

Design for Dematerialization
-- Minimize material throughput as well as the associated energy and resource consumption at every stage of the lifecycle.

This can be achieved through a variety of techniques such as product life extension, source reduction, process simplification, remanufacturing, use of recycled inputs or substitution of services for products. Dematerialization represents the best opportunity for decoupling economic growth from resource consumption.

For example, in 2008, in response to a challenge from Walmart to reduce packaging, HP introduced the Pavilion dv6929 notebook PC in a recycled laptop bag with 97 percent less packaging than typical laptops. The carrying bag contains no foam, only some plastic bags for consumers to dispose of. The bag itself, save for the buckle, strap and zipper, is made out of 100 percent recycled fabric. HP is able to fit three bags in a box for shipping the product to stores, thus reducing energy use and costs related to logistics.

The most radical approach to dematerialization is to eliminate products altogether and provide services instead. For example, the concept of car sharing, which began in Europe in the late 1980s, offers a convenient alternative to car ownership, enabling people to use the most effective combination of motor vehicles, walking, biking, or public transportation. The largest U.S. provider, Zipcar, claims that each of its cars replaces over 15 privately owned vehicles, thus relieving congestion and changing the urban landscape. Besides reducing fuel consumption and emissions, this reduces the burdens of urban parking infrastructure.

Design for Detoxification
-- Minimize the potential for adverse human or ecological effects at every stage of the lifecycle.

This can be achieved through replacement of toxic or hazardous materials with benign ones, introduction of cleaner technologies that reduce harmful wastes and emissions, including greenhouse gases, or waste modification using chemical, energetic or biological treatment. Note that, while detoxification can reduce environmental impacts, it may not substantially reduce resource consumption.

For example, SC Johnson, the consumer products manufacturer, has established a Greenlist program to classify all the ingredients that go into its products according to their impact on the environment and human health. The company has invested a considerable effort to eliminate chlorine-based packaging, including PVC bottles. In one case, the company reformulated a popular metal polish product so that it could be packaged in a non-PVC bottle (PET), and actually reduced overall lifecycle costs. The new formula uses less chemicals, matches the performance of the old product, eliminates the need for the EU "Dangerous for the Environment" hazard label, and can be warehoused together with other products.

Similarly, BASF, a European chemical manufacturer, has developed a novel line of synthetic plastics, called Ecoflex, that are completely biodegradable, and will decompose in soil or compost within a few weeks. Introduced in 1998, it has become the world's leading synthetic biodegradable material, and is commonly used for trash bags or disposable packaging. Another product line, Ecovio is a blend of Ecoflex and polylactic acid made from corn, and is used in flexible films for shopping bags.

Design for Revalorization -- Recover residual value from materials and resources that have already been utilized in the economy, thus reducing the need for extraction of virgin resources.

This can be achieved by finding secondary uses for discarded products, refurbishing or remanufacturing products and components at the end of their useful life, facilitating disassembly and material separation for durable products, and finding economical ways to recycle and reuse waste streams. Industrial ecology approaches fit within this strategy, and are discussed separately below.

Revalorization goes hand in glove with dematerialization, since repeatedly cycling materials and resources within the economy reduces the need to extract them from the environment.

For example, before sustainability became fashionable, Xerox pioneered the practice of converting end-of-life electronic equipment into new products and parts. Xerox began a systematic "asset recovery" program in 1991, and by 2008 remanufacturing and recycling had given new life to more than 2.8 million copiers, printers and multifunction systems, while diverting nearly two billion pounds of potential waste from landfills -- 111 million pounds (50,000 metric tons) in 2006 alone. Moreover, the program has saved more than $2 billion over that period. To accomplish this, Xerox developed a comprehensive process for taking back end-of-life products, including design methods for ease of disassembly and recovery as well as systematic processes for remanufacture, parts reuse and recycling.

Similarly, Caterpillar has established a profitable Remanufacturing Division that oversees the worldwide take-back and refurbishment of engines and components. The remanufacturing process reduces waste, minimizes the need for virgin materials, and helps ensure the recovery of end-of-life products through a closed loop reverse logistics process. In 2007, the company took back over two billion pounds of material -- achieving a global return rate of 93 percent. Remanufactured parts are assembled into finished products and warrantied the same as new products. Thus, nonrenewable resources are kept in circulation for multiple lifetimes -- supporting the company's goal for a zero landfill footprint by 2020.

Design for Capital Protection and Renewal
-- Assure the availability and integrity of the various types of productive capital that are the basis of future human prosperity.

Here "capital" is used in the broadest sense.

Human capital
refers to the health, safety, security and well being of employees, customers, suppliers and other enterprise stakeholders. (Also important is the preservation of social capital; namely, the institutions, relationships, and norms that underpin human society, including bonds of mutual trust.)

Natural capital
refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that make possible all economic activity, indeed all life.

Economic capital refers to tangible enterprise assets including facilities and equipment, as well as intellectual property, reputation, and other intangible assets that represent economic value.

Capital protection involves maintaining continuity and productivity for existing capital, while renewal involves restoring, reinvesting, or generating new capital to replace that which has been depleted. Thus, renewal may include attracting new talent, revitalizing ecosystems, and building new factories.

For example, Herman Miller, a manufacturer of office furniture, is known for incorporating environmental design into high-quality products such as the famed Aeron chair. The company is also recognized as a leader in sustainable facility design, which builds human capital as well as natural capital. Herman Miller headquarters was one of the first "green" office and manufacturing complexes built in the U.S., and the enhanced workplace led to noticeable increases in employee satisfaction and productivity. The company has set ambitious goals for the year 2020: to eliminate solid and hazardous wastes as well as air and water emissions, to use 100 percent green electrical energy, to construct buildings to a minimum of LEED silver certification, and to have 100 percent of its sales from DFE-approved products.

Another example is Intel Corporation's investment in preserving natural capital. The company uses ultra-pure water in its semiconductor fabrication plants, some of which are located in water-stressed areas such as Arizona and Israel. The Corporate Industrial Water Management Group supports the operating sites in implementing local strategies for sustainable water use. For example, at Intel's Chandler, Ariz., facility, treated process water is sent to an off-site municipal treatment plant, brought up to drinking water standards, and re-injected into the underground aquifer at a rate of about 1.5 million gallons per day.

Joseph Fiksel, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University. The preceding is an excerpt from his book, "Design for Environment: A Guide to Sustainable Product Development," which is now in its second edition from McGraw-Hill, New York, 2009. It is reprinted with permission.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller.