October 29, 2019 Last updated October 28th, 2019 912 Reads share

What To Consider When Creating A Sustainable Product

Creating A Sustainable ProductImage Credit: DepositPhotos

Sustainability is now a huge issue for many people and that’s just as well because it needs to be if we are to ensure the long-term future of our planet.

This means that companies need to play their part and put sustainability front and center in the creation of their products (and also any services they offer). With that in mind, here are some points to consider.

Sustainability is a cradle-to-grave concept

There is now a huge emphasis on placing the concept of sustainability front and center in every stage of a product’s life-cycle, literally from the drawing board to the recycling (or composting) bin via the manufacturing process, the transport process and the storage process.

For the sake of completeness, while sustainability is often discussed in the context of physical products, many of the concepts also apply to the digital world. For example, computer programs and mobile apps that are well-designed and “well-manufactured” or in other words “well-written” require fewer resources to run and are hence intrinsically more sustainable.

Sustainability and the design process

Product design needs to combine functionality with the environmental mantras of “reduce, reuse and recycle”. At the current time, possibly the most obvious implication of this is reducing the amount of material used to create a product and, in particular, the amount of packaging used to keep it safe.

If at all possible, companies should reuse and recycle materials as this not only gives waste a productive new life but also generally reduces a product’s overall energy footprint.

Sustainability and the manufacturing process

There are two ways to improve the sustainability of a product’s manufacturing process.

The first is to improve the general sustainability of the manufacturing plant as a whole, for example by installing solar panels and by switching from fluorescent and/or incandescent lighting to using LED lights.

The second is to apply the highest sustainability standards to the entire manufacturing process of the specific item, all the way through the supply and manufacturing chain.

These days, it’s important to be very aware of the fact that the company which puts its name on a product is held accountable for the behavior of its suppliers and partners, so the onus is on the manufacturer to check the provenance of any and all raw materials it uses and to ensure that any service providers it uses also demonstrate a responsible and ethical attitude towards sustainability.

Sustainability and the transport process

There are basically three main aspects which influence sustainability, or otherwise, of the transport process, the first is speed and the second is distance and the third is weight.

In simple terms, slower methods of transport tend to be more sustainable than faster ones. So, for example, if a product (or a raw material) needs to be transported over a long distance, then a (container) ship is a vastly preferable option to a plane.

Of course, regardless of speed, the distance a product (or a raw material) needs to travel will influence its level of sustainability. Ideally, products should be created as close as possible to the point of use and should be made out of locally-sourced materials.

Obviously, in the real world, this is not always possible, however, it should be the standard for which manufacturers aim.

Last, but by no means least, weight is also a factor in the sustainability of the transport process.  Like all other issues, however, this has to be looked at in context.

On the one hand, the fuel consumption of goods vehicles is influenced by the weight of the load which means that purely from the perspective of the transport process, lighter goods are preferable to heavier ones.

On the other hand, if this extra weight extends the functionality and/or lifespan of the product, then it may improve its overall level of sustainability. So, in short, the key point is to avoid any excess weight, such as packaging which is purely for decorative purposes. 

Sustainability and the storage process

Essentially, the smaller, lighter and more compact a product can be made, the more sustainable it will be.  As always, however, this needs to be considered in context. Some items are inherently big and bulky if not necessarily heavy.

For example, a duvet for a king-sized bed is invariably going to need more storage space and packaging than a sensory blanket for a baby’s cot. Notwithstanding this, however, companies should always be on the lookout for ways to improve sustainability through innovation.

For example, these days it is becoming increasingly common for mattresses to be delivered in “vacuum-packed” form, i.e. without air, which reduces the amount of space they take up during transit and hence the amount of packing they use.

Sustainability and the disposal process

A truly sustainable product will “leave nothing but memories”, in other words, it will either be completely recyclable or completely compostable/biodegradable and, of course, this includes its packaging.

As an absolute minimum, avoid using any excess packaging at all, even if it is created out of materials that are reasonably sustainable, e.g. cardboard boxes. Where single-use packaging is absolutely necessary, try to replace plastic with paper alternatives, even if this does entail an extra cost.

For example, switch out Styrofoam and plastic bubble wrap with biodegradable paper bubble wrap.

Sustainability and cost

As many environmentalists have pointed out, the ultimate cost of a lack of sustainability is far greater than any costs involved with acting in a more sustainable manner.

In the real world, however, businesses have to think about their short- to medium-term profitability as well as their long-term future (and that of the generations yet to come).

The good news here is that while implementing sustainability measures may indeed have a minimal short-term impact on a company’s finances since it will typically require some form of investment and/or process adjustment, that investment/adjustment will generally result in lower ongoing costs and hence pay for itself, often within the medium term and certainly over the long term.

Product Design – DepositPhotos

Nick Mills

Nick Mills

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