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According to the European Commission, it is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product.

And with climate change, circular economy and sustainability coming to the forefront over the past few years, the products we design, and the supply chains to make and deliver them are a major part of these challenges, both as a major contributor to the problems and as a great area of focus where we can take action to address the problems.

Moreover, sustainable design does not only prettify things to sell them better, but it also addresses real challenges we face on our finite planet.  It can help to solve problems and opens a wide range of opportunities to improve the whole value chain.

Designing a Sustainable Design Process

It all starts by ensuring that the products that we bring to market are designed with end of life in mind. How the products themselves and the packaging material they come in can be recycled, repurposed, re-used or returned to the earth. Sustainable design processes aim to reduce the environmental impact of products, including energy consumption throughout their entire life cycle.

As many organizations seek to improve their sustainable supply chain practices, they have recognized that sustainable design plays a critical role in promoting sustainable supply chain across upstream to down-stream activities of how products are designed, manufactured, moved, used, and ultimately decommissioned. It covers all aspects: ecological, economic, social, and cultural.

And the old way - to manufacture products just for one-time usage and disposal is no longer feasible and very much outdated.

In his Linkedin Live session on Designing for the Planet Tom Raftery, Global VP, Futurist and Innovation Evangelist, SAP, explained that companies are now starting to realize that sustainability is no longer a “nice to have”, but it is becoming an actual business imperative. He explained there are numerous reasons such as consumer pressures, regulatory mandates, increasing regulations, and country or even continental level commitments to reduce emissions.

Tom cited an announcement from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding the requirement for domestic and foreign registrants to include certain climate-related information in their registration statements and periodic reports. Although many businesses already disclose sustainability data, the SEC would make sustainability reporting mandatory, which is a huge step.

Design has a major impact on a sustainable supply chain

In the Linkedin Live session, Keith Zobott, Global VP of Digital Products & Projects at SAP discussed how “The early portion of the product lifecycle has the most influence in determining how the product is going to affect the environment, not only in the design of which materials to use but also in the manufacturing or logistics processes”.

He further added that it is important to have a total product lifecycle assessment process in place especially when it comes to the retirement or disposal of the product. As Keith explained, “Many global companies today used to have the philosophy ‘design anywhere, build anywhere, but it is important to take into account where the raw materials are being sourced from, and where the customer demand is, to minimize the carbon impact”.

As a result, governance – or accountability – is important at every stage throughout the supply chain and product lifecycle. "There is no stakeholder in your company who isn't impacted and concerned about sustainability in the supply chain. And don’t forget the customer, who is looking to buy a sustainable product too" said Cate Mork, US Supply Chain Sustainability Lead at EY.

A properly designed product will impact how sustainably that product can be manufactured and not just how it is manufactured. And design has an impact on the cost of logistics, and ultimately also on how the customer experiences the product, and how the product is handled at the end of its life.

A 4-step approach to product design

The question is, 'Where do you start? What do you look at?'  And the most challenging thing is to getting started.

Keith Zobott, described four approaches that can easily be applied and measured within the product development process :

  • Re-Using: To think of re-using a component in many applications will be a good start and it is a simple way of reducing material usage.

  • Recycled material: The ability to use recycled materials for new product development is still an emerging area, but material science is producing recycled materials now that are actually quite robust in terms of new applications.

  • Re-Purposing: During a product's lifetime, there is a time when a product starts to wear-out. At this point, you can create repair instructions to bring it that part back to its original design intent. These repairability factors can help extend the longevity of a particular part or component.

  • Minimization: Just thinking of making things smaller. Do we need all these materials that take up all these space and storage costs? Can we do it with one third of the amount of the material that we were using before, and by doing so using less raw materials?

Tom, Keith and Cathy discussed that when it comes to sustainable design practices, the key priorities are to:

  • Design to minimize the carbon footprint of both processes and products

  • Collaborate with suppliers on sustainability issues to foster product innovation – companies embarking on such initiatives have added new features and performance characteristics to existing products and even generated new products

  • Ensure all packaging and products are bio-degradable, re-usable or recyclable

  • Optimize the resource use by providing insights on material impact to support switching in light of extended producer responsibility

  • Trace the material at the beginning – from resources to manufactured goods – for more information about the products as well as the parts and material the product consists of, hence a sustainability track record is a must

Embrace circularity and become regenerative

Technology can help companies reduce, reuse, recycle and use reclaimed materials to minimize waste and adopt a circular business model. To achieve circularity and become regenerative, products should be designed with their end of life in mind. For example, businesses can leverage sensors to track which products are causing damage to the atmosphere and feed that information back into the design process to improve future offerings and help to meet a company’s ecological commitments.

Executives and product designers can go even further by answering questions, such as how a product will be refurbished, repurposed, reused, or returned to the earth and which methods help ensure nonbiodegradable materials do not end up in oceans and landfills.

In a circular supply chain, products are disassembled or reduced to their raw materials form, and remade into sellable products, thus allowing businesses to achieve the environmental benefits of recycling while recouping costs in the process.

If you want to know more about how Sustainable Design can help to change your supply chain, download the new Design and Manufacture Report.