Life Cycle Assessment Part 3: Reduce Your Product’s Environmental Impact

By Giles Matthews.

My last post stepped into some heavy territory – reducing your product’s negative social impact. This post we’ll grapple with the equally dense issue of reducing your product’s environmental impact.

Often the easiest way to improve a product’s environmental impact is to reduce the amount of material used. This needs to be done in a very analytical method. Simply hacking away at your product could have serious implications if your product fails critically or is no longer up to the rigours of general use. This could result in a shorter product lifespan and gain you a poor reputation.

You may come up against some internal resistance in your product development office when you propose a reduction in material for the purposes of improving its environmental impact. There is often a preconceived notion that anyone that is environmentally conscious must be a hand-knitted-jumper-wearing-left-footed hippie. But I do not advise retaliation in this circumstance – simply phrase your proposal in terms that others in the business world can understand. A material optimisation for the purposes of manufacturing efficiency is a good start and mentioning a potential part price saving of 5-10% straight away is another way to deliver it. For the most part you are stating the obvious, because reducing your environmental impact through reducing the amount of material the product uses is common practise in many commoditised industries. Consumer commodity goods, packaging, consumer electronics and the automotive industry are all examples of this principle. All have shown clear improvements in material use reduction.

In most aspects of optimisation that occur in industry, there are vast improvements in functionality too. In the mid 1950’s Mercedes Benz engineers included crumple zones in the W Series Ponton.[1]  And ever since, except for some glaring stuff-ups, the vast majority of vehicles have become safer and more efficient.

Of course there is the argument that the significant increase in sales in all of these products has wiped away any gains made by reducing the product’s material usage.  Obviously the counter argument is true also if you compare the material usage of the products you currently use every day to their 1950’s counterparts. It is important to remember that any strategy should be combined with other efforts to have a broad approach to creating a truly sustainable product.

What else can you do? Once you’ve optimised what’s left to reduce?  Have a close look at your product life cycle. Without a doubt you will find an opportunity to reduce and contribute significantly to your overall sustainability.

Water, energy and waste are my suggestions for any super sleuth that is looking to sniff around to find a nugget of sustainability.  In any industry water is becoming a precious commodity and it is something you can substitute, especially when it is a carrier for nasty additives. In steel engineering, when cutting, compressed air is a wonderful example that can efficiently replace the use of water that has additives.  A cold air gun uses a high velocity air vortex to chill air and when you aim it at your work there is no need for oil water coolant mixes.[2]

It is not only the engineering industry that can benefit from reducing the environmental impact of a product’s lifecycle. The meat processing industry, for example, consumes tremendous amounts of water when cleaning their fleshy and previously living product. The addition of appropriate drainage, filtration and storage has had a dramatic impact in reducing the amount of wastewater runoff.[3]

It may be daunting and you feel as though you are powerless, a small cog in a big machine. However, as a designer, engineer or someone who can control a product’s environmental impact, be aware there is a lot of support and inspiration available. And it’s not just on Pinterest! There are few better, than a free book available on the web, by Paul Hawken called Natural Capitalism.[4]  It wonderfully reframes a view of capitalist systems as a way to bring the most enterprising and innovative companies at the very heart of the problem to a money making solution. So remember to preserve capital, and in this case your resources!

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