A-B-C-Design: Engaging the Whole Company in Developing Sustainable Products

Given the sheer number of items we purchase, use and throw away every year, it’s no surprise that consumer products are the ultimate drivers of carbon emissions. In that context, product design is critical for addressing climate change. As the concentration point for a large set of decisions about human and material resource flows, product design can influence emissions throughout the value chain, with the potential to yield significant results: According to the U.K.-based Climate Group, during the next decade, developments to information and communication technology products alone could reduce global GHG emissions by 15 percent, while saving the industry more than $900 billion. 

Ironically, the shortest path to better products is often found not inside the design team, but throughout the rest of the company.

At Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), we worked with the design and innovation firm IDEO to produce the report “Aligned for Sustainable Design: An A-B-C-D Approach to Making Better Products,” [PDF] which shows that sustainability introduces a range of factors into organizations that require the engagement of people throughout the company. Indeed, the real bottleneck to design problems is often low organizational capacity. Rather than looking to the designer to lead product sustainability strategies, managers need to coordinate conventionally unconnected parts of the organization and promote dynamic organizational learning.

The four main ways to do this can be described as the A-B-C-Ds of sustainable design:

A: Assess the climate impacts of your company’s projects and evaluate your organization’s capacity to address these impacts. Some companies, like Sony and Philips, do this by pursuing formal lifecycle analyses and materials assessments of their products in order to ensure that they understand where impacts really come from. Others, like Intel, also focus on understanding the impacts of first-tier suppliers. Still other companies are experimenting with new methodologies entirely: BT, for example, has developed a “Climate Stability Intensity” method that conveys the company’s global emissions normalized by expected atmospheric levels needed for climate stability.

B: Bridge functions and people needed for making valuable, tractable product redesigns. Often, this means making unconventional cases for commitments and resources. For example, Procter & Gamble, recognizing that energy-efficiency projects have important benefits that outweigh traditional return-on-investment hurdles, has bridged sustainability and finance by earmarking 5 percent of its budget ($5 million) for energy-saving projects. Hewlett-Packard has developed an energy supply chain function, which creates a formal, cross-functional bridge between traditional procurement and environmental responsibility teams.

Three Approaches to Sustainable Design
Given the demand for greener products, many companies are incorporating sustainable design into everything from cars to computers. They are employing three main approaches to designing low-emissions products:
• Reducing lifecycle emissions in existing products through new design specifications and features: Toyota has started equipping its hybrid electric car, the Prius, with rooftop solar panels that power the air-conditioner, and companies with energy-using products like HP and Dell are developing better power-saving and idle modes. Even companies with products that don’t use energy are designing specifications for lower-impact maintenance and disposal. Apparel companies, for example, are providing cold-water wash instructions for clothing.
• Linking existing products to restoration: Tyson is eliminating emissions from waste by turning animal byproducts into biofuel. Other companies, like Nissan, are linking products with restoration by automatically buying carbon offsets with automobile purchases.
• Deploying new product and service concepts: With videoconferencing, companies such as Cisco and Skype are fulfilling the need for live communication with an alternative to emissions-intensive air travel. Other companies have focused their business plans around products aimed at saving emissions: One such business is Liftshare.org which uses a simple database platform to bring people and organizations together to carpool.

C: Create internal and external learning projects that enhance knowledge of product sustainability and support necessary changes in the design process. Nike, for example, has launched a number of projects, such as one that reduces production scrap and diverts worn-out shoes from disposal, and another that phases out industrial greenhouse gases from the bladders of shoes’ air soles. It also remotely monitors the energy efficiency of its suppliers. Marks and Spencer has launched a range of projects, including one aimed at in-store energy reduction, another to source food regionally and label food transported by air freight. Another program targets consumers with educational and inspirational messages.

D: Diffuse lessons and accountability mechanisms that build sustainability literacy and affect better decision-making throughout the organization. This puts information in the hands of the right people at the right time, and creates accountability for product outcomes. Wal-Mart, North America’s largest private user of electricity, has developed a comprehensive, companywide sustainability mandate with six broad priorities and 14 cross-functional teams. As part of the effort, Wal-Mart uses what it calls “Personal Sustainability Projects” to train employees on ways to incorporate sustainability into their lives. Toyota has a number of initiatives to diffuse sustainability lessons: It formally mandates environmental action in its “Earth Charter,” it is developing local systems that streamline complex ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 methods in North American facilities, and the company uses green supplier guidelines that emphasize collaboration.

To enhance product sustainability, more consumers and policymakers are pushing companies to reduce carbon emissions throughout their value chains. Remember the cardinal rule: The crux of sustainable product design is generally not found within the design team, but rather in the information flow throughout the rest of the company.

First posted at GreenBiz.

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