Sustainability by Design: building greener products for a sustainable future

Jun 25, 2024
Manufacturing | 7 min READ
Understand how to apply sustainability by design principles in product innovation, and how it can drive holistic outcomes for all stakeholders.
Shamdutt Kamble
Shamdutt Kamble

AVP, Digital Manufacturing


Rishu Sharma
Rishu Sharma

Practice Director, Digital Evangelist and Storyteller



Traditionally, product innovation has been focused on profitability more than any other factor. Market differentiation and customer experience also constituted key drivers of product design and innovation processes, but sustainability was nowhere in the picture – at least until recently.
With climate change concerns growing more urgent and pertinent, businesses, governments, and academic institutions are constantly devising new ways to promote sustainability. One of the most important frameworks in this context is the Sustainability by Design or Design for Sustainability approach.
What is Sustainability by Design?
Sustainability by Design, or Sustainability by Design is a framework that helps create more sustainable products by taking a lifecycle approach to product design. It makes sustainability a key objective of product innovation and aims to minimize or mitigate the impact of product design, production, usage or consumption, and disposal on the environment.
Sustainability by Design is an essential framework in the concept of circular economy – a system that encourages reuse and regeneration in environmentally friendly ways.
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Why is Sustainability by Design important?
The products on which the human species rely have a significant environmental impact. This impact manifests in the form of mining and production of new materials, carbon emissions in the process of production and reuse, and disposal of products that are no longer useful.
As per a UN report, the material footprint of a country is 95.9 billion metric tons.1 Moreover, production causes a significant chunk of GHG emissions. This makes Sustainability by Design a valuable tool in the limited arsenal of options available to organizations for advancing their sustainability strategies.
Practical steps to adopt a Sustainability by Design approach
#1. Embed eco-friendliness and circularity in product design
The first step is to establish eco-friendliness as a key objective of product design. The United Nations Environment Program recommends a holistic framework to adopt Sustainability by Design in profit-driven organizations – one that focuses on the Planet, People, and Profits at the same time.
Embracing circularity compels design and R&D teams to take a product lifecycle approach to sustainability. This leads to the creation of closed-loop products and circular business models that take accountability of the product from origin to end of life.
#2. Design products for durability
This is an extension of eco-friendly design. Less durable products require frequent replacement, which not only adds to the material footprint but also to the energy requirements for producing the item once again. Some materials require droves of energy to extract and produce, whereas the production of complex items may consume a high amount of energy.
Durability can be improved via multiple approaches. Some items can be made durable with the use of stronger materials, others may require testing for thousands or millions of usage cycles or hours.
#3. Design products for disassembly
In some products, the failure or breakage of one element renders them obsolete or useless. For instance, portable electronic devices in which the battery cannot be replaced, reach the end of life when the battery gives out.
Similarly, products in which some components are prone to wear will go obsolete unless those components can be swapped for new ones. Designing for disassembly enables manufacturers to keep their products in use for longer. Modularity is a key strategy in designing for disassembly.
#4. Promote recyclability and facilitate reuse
Recycling products enable manufacturers to produce the same items with a smaller material footprint. One of the most important ways to design for recyclability is by using standardized parts, like fasteners, screws, and body frames.
Similarly, upgradeability can drive reuse, and marketing interventions can drive the uptake of used products. The latter is especially applicable in the apparel industry, where descriptions, like gently used or rarely used, can compel customers to buy used products and extend their life cycle. Similarly, facilitating easier repair of damaged products can also help extend the product life cycle.
#5. Embedding sustainability in sourcing decisions
Tier-2 and Tier-3 emissions constitute a significant fraction of product carbon footprint in manufacturing. This can be eliminated by sourcing materials from suppliers that are investing in sustainability themselves. While sustainable sourcing may come at a price premium, this can, in turn, build leverage for commanding better prices.
With sustainable sourcing, provenance is essential. Blockchain technology can help verify sustainable sourcing claims, and this provenance can be built into the product lifecycle for increased transparency and trust. However, sustainable sourcing is getting increasingly difficult, and estimates suggest that the demand for green steel and recycled plastic could shoot by 2x by 2030.2
#6. Maximizing energy efficiency and use of renewable energy
Energy-linked industrial emissions account for over 30% of overall GHG emissions.3 In Sustainability by Design, energy-efficient production is a key lever for lowering the carbon footprint of a product. One way to achieve this is to make the production process more energy efficient, another is to purchase and use renewable energy to power production.
But in Sustainability by Design, aiming for energy effectiveness can lower the power consumption of the product through its entire life cycle. By activating a combination of these strategies, manufacturers can achieve significant GHG reductions.
#7. Leading value chain decarbonization efforts
The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) identifies value chain decarbonization as the most important lever for attaining net-zero goals, as Scope-3 emissions account for 70% of corporate emissions.4
Value chain decarbonization calls for solid carbon accounting frameworks and activating ecosystem strategies to offset the initial bump in input costs. Decarbonization efforts can also be steered by product design decisions. Switching to safer and recyclable material alternatives and working with suppliers to drive recycling or reuse efforts can have a significant impact on Scope-3 emissions.
#8. Driving sustainable packaging design
Packaging is yet another contributor to a product’s material footprint. With packaging, reusability is difficult to achieve, especially in vast distribution networks where bidirectional logistics prove expensive.
Therefore, sustainable packaging design is limited to a few tactics. These include the reduction in the amount of material used in packaging, switching to compostable packaging materials, and using recycled materials.
#9. Think about the end of product life
Another corollary of designing for sustainability, is to consider what happens to a product once it reaches the end of life.
Some manufacturers integrate recycling into their customer operations (apparel industry is a leading example), whereas others incentivize exchange, which promotes reuse and safe disposal of harmful components.
#10. Focus on managing and reducing wastage
Manufacturing processes result in harmful byproducts and create high volumes of waste. This waste may manifest in the form of water, materials, chemicals, and defective parts.
Manufacturing operations can be tweaked to minimize this wastage with innovative strategies. For instance, waste water can be captured and fed back into a process, and defective parts can be decomposed into constituent materials which can be used again.
#11. Building governance and risk management guardrails
Sustainability by Design is not a framework that is limited to design and engineering teams. Instead, its outcomes rest on effective interdisciplinary collaboration, targeted implementation, regulatory expertise, and the ability to work with stakeholders across the value chain.
This makes effective governance and risk management an essential aspect of any Sustainability by Design initiative. Putting together a governance team for steering Sustainability by Design efforts is an important starting point in this direction.
Designing for a sustainable future
One of the most challenging aspects of Sustainability by Design is that such initiatives do not have predictable outcomes, and there is a certain degree of risk involved. This aptly makes it an element of product innovation, where discovery and experimentation are the keys to desired results.
However, in a sustainability-driven market and regulatory environment, Sustainability by Design is one of the most valuable strategies available to manufacturers. Trusted technology partners like Birlasoft can offer a window into the current state of Sustainability by Design initiatives, and what is achievable with the current technology.
With extensive expertise and decades of experience working with leading manufacturers, Birlasoft has devised innovative technology solutions to help manufacturers advance their sustainability initiatives. Our work in manufacturing sustainability spans energy efficiency, electric industrial mobility, automation for reducing material footprint, carbon accounting and monitoring solution design. Moreover, Birlasoft partners with key hyper-scalers to bring innovative sustainability technologies to manufacturing organizations. Embark on your Sustainability by Design journey today by getting in touch with Birlasoft and advance towards a sustainable future.
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