Sustainability Begins with Product Design

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Product Design

What is product design?

Product design is the stage of bringing a product solution to life with experimentation. An idea is imagined for how it can possibly exist in real-time interactions. Someone pondering a design generally thinks of the materials used, the shape of the product, and the manufacturing/ assembly of the product. All components following this initial stage reflect the proactive thinking done by the designer and design team.

Much of the product design process includes iteration. Teams must figure out if their ideas can withstand tests and performance expectations. In most cases, the product design process examines a minimal viable product (MVP) to understand what changes need to be made. Tweaks to the materials, shapes, and overall delivery of the product solution happen to find the version that maintains the purpose of the original product solution and works out the issues of the original product solution.

This is a simplified view of product design. Looking at a product solution in this process can merge with other tasks such as examining the product life cycle (life cycle assessment), checking brand consistency, and doing ongoing updates to improve the product solution. Product design is a very engaged process to bring a product solution to users in the most effective way manageable.

What are the key decisions made in product design?

Knowing the key decisions related to a product solution uncovers where innovation is most needed. If the product solution is software, a team could question the amount of code, how to write documentation, and examine what kind of system can operate the software. If the product solution is physical, a team could question how many resources are needed, whether or not a user manual is required, and what settings the product can and cannot be used in.

People Helping People is currently working on sustainable product development in a crafts-related field. The following product decisions are ones we see as being part of product design for sustainable businesses that are developing, launching, or reimagining a physical craft product.

  • Materials
  • Assembly
  • Functionality
  • End of Life

Where does sustainability come in?

Typically, product design is made with the end-user in mind. Products are made thinking of customer behavior and product usage while also predicting issues the end-user may have during usage. This should still be the case, but in sustainable product development, this same track of thinking is also used to determine impacts on the environment. As we talked about earlier, product design overlaps with understanding the product’s life cycle. Doing a life cycle assessment to guide product design is where sustainability can begin.

Decisions made along the road of the product design process are part of a ripple impacting the environment. Proactively taking care of the ripple can help the impact be neutral or positive. The major thing is to not create a negative impact. Life cycle assessments allow teams to look at each part of a product’s existence. A part by part examination empowers social entrepreneurs to be fully aware of their sustainability footprint, and not become overwhelmed with information or decision fatigue.

Here are questions to start off with based on the product design key decisions mentioned earlier:

Materials

  • How many kinds of materials are needed in the product?
  • Where are the materials being sourced from?
  • Can the product include biodegradable material?
  • Can the material be recycled?
  • How much GHG emissions are involved with the transportation and storage of the materials?
  • Does this material need to be handled in bulk or not?
  • What companies verify sustainable supply chains of the materials needed?

Assembly

  • How many parts make up this product?
  • Do different parts of the product require separate treatment?
  • How many technical manufacturing tools are needed for the assembly?
  • What is the scale of the manufacturing tools needed for the assembly?
  • What energy source is being used to fuel the manufacturing tools needed for the assembly?
  • Can the product be easily disassembled?

Functionality

  • Is the product reusable?
  • Does the product contain or deliver usage instructions in a way that is environmentally friendly?
  • Does the product functionality avoid unnecessary wear and tear to optimize the lifespan of the product?
  • Is there a way to fix or refurbish a broken product so it regains functionality?
  • How many times can a product be repaired before it loses reasonable functionality?

End of Life

  • Can the product be recycled or composted?
  • Is the product biodegradable?
  • Can the product be disassembled?
  • Will the company take care of the product’s end-of-life cycle, or will it be handled by a partner organization/ company?
  • How can the product’s life cycle restart?

Validating sustainability choices of product design

Understandably, one of the difficulties in combining product design and life cycle assessment is that some portions of the design aren’t easy to test in these early, iterative stages. How do you simulate natural wear and tear on the product? How do you calculate the impact of manufacturing tools when the final materials are not chosen? Imagination, data, and feedback can validate sustainability choices. A hypothetical choice must be made and followed as closely as possible to have a glimpse of the path created by these sustainability choices.

Social entrepreneurs approach sustainable product development much like a scientific theory. Basically, you have an idea or observation, create a hypothesis, try to find data that supports the claim, and then perform tests to see if and how you could possibly be mistaken. Notice, this is why an MVP is so useful. Teams can make a low-risk version of a product to test out its core components, and evolve the solution based on what is learned from testing the MVP.

More important than testing an MVP, a team must keep track of data and feedback. If you go down one hypothetical path that doesn’t work, you need to make note of it to not go down that path again. In the same light, it’s useful to know what does work. Knowing what does or doesn’t work can make future decisions easier when a similar scenario appears on a different path. For example, two separate paths could start with two different materials sourced from two different parts of the world, but the answer to how you disassemble the product can still be the same.

Iterating and Experimenting with sustainable product design choices

Product design is where sustainability begins. Choices made during the process influence the impacts caused throughout a product’s life cycle. Taking responsibility early in the process protects the planet and people from unnecessary turmoil. Iteration and experimentation of early sustainability choices can turn the product design process into a massive opportunity of social impact planning.

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