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Sustainability Begins with the Design Process

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Should product designers bear some of the burden for sustainability, materials use, and fair labor practices?

Are product designers and manufacturers responsible for creating products that are eco-friendly? This and other questions around sustainability are coming up for product designers. What type of materials should be used in products? Should global trade practices include recyclability? Are there ways design engineers can create responsible sustainability in a product-driven world? According to Andy Sherman, director of global supply chain at Fictiv – a custom manufacturing company – product designers need to bear some of the burden for sustainability, materials use, fair labor practices, and more.

Sherman believes that design engineers and manufacturers have a responsibility to keep end-of-life in mind when they create products. “Most of the products the world makes will end up in landfills at the end of their life, filling that fast-diminishing space for decades or even centuries,” Sherman told Design News. “End-of-life needs to be designed into the product itself. Yet while manufacturers can provide feedback to the designer, ultimately the product designer owns the specifications of the product.”

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Choosing Materials with End-of-life in Mind

We’re moving into a world where product designers will need to choose materials with end-of-life in mind. Given that, do they need to learn the recyclability and sustainability of materials as well as considering strength, durability, and cost? “From a sustainability standpoint, the best materials are no materials,” said Sherman. “For all products we create, we should evaluate every single part and every single feature on a part and ask ourselves: is this necessary or is it superfluous? Unnecessary parts translate into additional material usage and carbon emissions.”

According to Sherman, materials need to be specified based on recycling and other sustainability issues. “Are the materials recyclable? Is the product designed for easy disassembly and repair or is this not accounted for?” said Sherman. “Many considerations need to be discussed and thought through in the earliest stage of product conception.”

Sherman noted there are processes design engineers can use to evaluate materials from an end-of-life perspective. “For product design, recyclable materials are key to building products with end-of-life in mind,” said Sherman. “Design teams should ask themselves if the materials they have chosen can be reground or melted down for reuse in another product. The motto remains “reduce > reuse > recycle.”

The Global Trade Impact of Recyclability?

Globalization has an effect on the ecological aspects of products. Where products are produced, who they’re produced by, and where the end customer lives all affect recyclability and end-of-life issues. “The global trade war has impacted sustainability in that it has forced more companies to re-evaluate their sourcing strategies and, in many cases, create regional manufacturing closer to the point of consumption,” said Sherman. “This can happen either within the country of origin or by nearshoring, ultimately reducing carbon emissions.”

There are pressures that push manufacturers to address sustainability. Some involve consumer demand and others involve government regulation. “From a government policy perspective, the Paris Accord is one of the more impactful policies that is currently affecting sustainability in supply chains,” said Sherman. “It creates carbon emissions taxes on shipments from one country to another, causing higher landed costs for OEMs to produce their products overseas.”

Consumer Demand for Sustainable Products

Consumers have an impact on the recyclability of the products they buy. Many consumers are choosing products based on eco-friendliness. “Consumers are increasingly selecting brands that align with their values,” said Sherman. “A recent IBM and National Retail Federation study found that nearly six in 10 consumers surveyed are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact and nearly eight in 10 respondents indicated sustainability is important for them.”

Cost versus recyclability is a consideration that has become part of the consumer’s consciousness. This ultimately affects product design. “While price still has the biggest impact on supply chain decisions, we do believe we may be getting closer to a demand tipping point in consumer behavior that will permanently shift which types of products get made,” said Sherman.

While consumers may be gaining an awareness of ecological issues with the products they buy, that concern isn’t necessarily a part of business procurement. “Consumers are generally willing to pay a premium for products that align with their values,” said Sherman. “Yet that does not seem to carry over to B2B products, where buyers more often evaluate products by cost rather than sustainability.”

Who Bears the Greatest Responsibility for Sustainability?

Ultimately, it may be the buyer who holds the power with sustainable products, not the manufacturer, not the government. “While arguments can be made for many different entities to bear the burden of sustainability, the reality is that today it falls to the consumer,” said Sherman. “Regulation, consumer sentiment, and corporate CSR programs could all shift that dynamic over time. Yet given that supply chain management largely still focuses on cost, we don’t know when that will change.”

Consulting companies are beginning to advise their manufacturing customers on the sustainability of the products they design. “At Fictiv, we try to help our customers understand the difference between cost and value. We offer product teams choice in their supply chain decisions, which will ultimately lead to the best value in bringing their products to market,” said Sherman. “For instance, an upcoming service we will be offering our customers is a carbon offsetting program for shipments.”

Rob Spiegel has covered manufacturing for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include automation, supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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