Design for the environment: eco-improvement for free

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Design for the environment: eco-improvement for free

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."

Native American proverb

This blog is for people that agree that climate change is the biggest challenge of our time, and want to help mitigate it through innovation and new product development.

You know climate change is already happening. Temperatures are rising, drought and wild fires are starting to occur more frequently, rainfall patterns are shifting, glaciers and snow are melting and the global mean sea level is rising.

To combat climate change, we need exponential change. We must reduce or prevent emissions linked to human activities. In numbers, we need to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions before 2050. Exponential change means we need new solutions, and we need them fast. One single solution or idea will not solve a gargantuan challenge like climate change. It will require many ideas and executions to get to the finish line.

New product development is one of the realms where those new solutions can be found. The ongoing shift in the demands and behaviors of customers, employees,  governments and other stakeholders has incrementally raised the pressure on companies to act with integrity. Those companies turn to new product development to deliver solutions that benefit wider society – and meet the shifting market demand.

Also, developing new solutions is just good business practice. If for example you want to limit emissions, it means you think about more efficient operations. More efficient operations mean less cost. Likewise, you might rethink your business models and reduce your total cost of ownership.

This highly profitable and succesfull product line from a well known furniture company is completely no waste

What do we do though for those markets or segments where customers do not consider eco-improvement a positive value? Not always will customers flock to a new product whose only claim is to reduce green house gases. And if customers are not buying, your sales and your contribution to lowering green house gas emissions stay low.

The answer to this dilemma is ‘design for the environment’ and for your customer. Your new product development centers on both the customer need and the environmental need: from the very beginning of the design process. Your customers will flock to your new product because you developed it with more value for them. At the same time, unknowingly but intentionally, they help improve the eco system. Buy one, get eco-improvement for free. It is good business practice for you, and benefits wider society.

Public awareness of the influence humans have on the global ecosystem, started forty years ago. In the 1970s, scientists noticed that the ozone layer was thinning. They warned that this huge hole in the layer of ozone surrounding the earth could have serious effects on human health and the environment. The ozone layer protects us from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. This radiation causes skin cancer and cataracts, and damages plants, animals, and materials.

Ozone depletion in 2006

Source: NASA

Ozone layer through time

Source: EEA Europe

Researchers found evidence that linked the depletion of the ozone layer to the presence of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from refrigeration products and aerosol cans. To halt the depletion of the ozone layer, countries around the world agreed to stop using those ozone-depleting substances. This helped restore the ozone layer, and the expectation is that the hole in the ozone layer is fully restored by the end of this century.

Let’s take a deeper look at the options you have for designing for the environment. Here are four tips. 

 #1: use renewable and reusable materials

You should aim to use materials that are not damaging to the environment, the employees working with the materials, and the customers. Renewable materials mean you do not deplete the material source. Reusable materials are materials that can be - you guessed it - re-used. Examples are biomass, packaging materials that could be re-used or recycled, and the use of non-harmful chemicals for chemical products. Elimination of materials also contributes, like for example not using unnecessary packaging for shipping. 

Chemical products have a multitude of symbols on their labels that all refer to potential risks to humans and the environment. The dead fish dead tree label for example meant it had a negative effect on the environment. Being eco-efficient would mean you reformulate your product such that this label would disappear.

 #2: optimise logistics to minimise CO₂

Transport movement – by car, plane or boat – means CO₂ emission. Optimising logistics is a quick way to limit emissions. You can optimise logistics by minimising the distance your incoming and outgoing goods travel. An example would be to choose a local supplier over an international supplier. You can choose more efficient transport, e.g. rail over a truck. You can also choose transport modes that are more CO₂ friendly, like electric cars, or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

 #3: aim for environmental processing

When you design a new product, at some point you will have to make it. In the design phase you can already think about this manufacturing step, and make it as energy friendly, non hazardous and low waste as possible. This is not only eco-friendly, but also makes good business sense as you will drive down cost by minimising energy, waste and hazards.

The Prius was one of the first hybrid cars on the market. People bought it not for its style or speed but to shrink their carbon footprint. Studies showed though that hybrid cars do, in fact, require more energy to produce than conventional car. The manufacturing process emits more greenhouse gases and burns more fossil fuels than traditional car manufacturing. The production of hybrid batteries, in particular, requires much more energy than producing a standard car battery. The higher CO₂ emission from production is offset by the far lower CO₂ emission when driving a hybrid car. Over its lifetime, the hybrid car is more eco-friendly than a conventional car. You’ll have to drive it for a while though before you have a positive impact on the environment.

 #4: design for disposal

This asks of you to think of the end-of-life of your new product already at the beginning of the design of it. After all, the end-of-life of a product has an important impact on its eco profile. Some products for example emit dangerous chemicals after they are disposed of. You want to prevent that to happen with your new product. You should plan for reuse or refurbishing, how the product could be disassembled after its lifetime and what can be reused, and the environmental impact of the waste.

New product development offers you the unique opportunity to design for the environment from the very beginning. There are many opportunities to design for the environment, and four of those are mentioned. Essentially you focus your new development from the very beginning both on the customer need and the environmental need. Your customers will flock to your new product because you developed it with more value for them. At the same time, unknowingly but intentionally, they help improve the eco system, because you designed for the environment as well. You serve your customers better, you grow your business, you limit cost, and your new product benefits wider society.

At IGG Innovatie Consultants, we believe that mankind’s ingenuity can solve any seemingly unsolvable dilemma. We believe in creating long term health for your business, as well as for our planet thus preserving our children’s heritage.

Designing for the environment is an important tool to help us in our mission. Want to know more?

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About the Author

I am Robert Uhlhorn, an experienced and engaged innovator. I have been living new product development in large corporations for over 25 years. From this, I went on to develop the FTL method: the fast, transparent, and lean way of growing your business with innovative products. I love to travel and to spend quality time with my family.

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