Cradle to Cradle: Greening the Product Life Cycle

industrial design
Photo by Henriette Cramer

Designers have long developed product concepts that promote utility, value and aesthetic appeal, but industrial design programs are now bringing environmental impact into the picture.

Industrial designers are beginning to take on the challenges of a greener economy by seizing opportunities to preempt pollution, promote reuse and recyclability, and maximize energy efficiency in the development of new products.

Industrial design is a natural starting point for building a more sustainable economy. Designers are key players at the font of new products and systems that have a pivotal impact on not just markets but also culture and daily life.

 

Circular Economy: Cradle-to-Cradle

For industrial designers, going green means solving complex problems in new and creative ways. And its not just about the final product – it means taking a holistic view of design and considering the entire life cycle of a product from the get-go.

A new concept has emerged to define this way of thinking: cradle-to-cradle design. In the past, designers have adhered to the conventional cradle-to-grave method, in which products are simply designed with the assumption that they will ultimately be thrown away when they’re no longer useful.

A cradle-to-cradle approach, on the other hand, makes no such assumption. The end of a product’s life cycle is just the beginning of another cycle, as waste is recovered and transformed into inputs for new products. It’s been called the ‘circular economy,’ a concept born in the nascent field of industrial ecology.

 

Rethinking Composition

But how do you design an eco-friendly product that jibes with the circular economy? What does it mean to consider the environment in product design?

Creative designers trained at America’s industrial design schools are learning to look both ways before choosing their inputs: Can an item be made with previously recycled materials? Can it be made with substances that could later be recycled? Can it be made with fewer materials overall?

Most raw materials are recyclable, from paper and plastic to glass and metal. Alternatively, biomaterials have become a popular way to reduce a product’s end-of-life waste load. The idea is to avoid creating products that will end up in a landfill or incinerator and add to the planet’s carbon burden.

Does the product use energy directly? If so, energy efficiency and emissions are foremost concerns. What about marketing and packaging? Each of these areas offers unique opportunities for green innovation.

 

Room for Improvement

Of course, different products will afford varying degrees of flexibility in their composition and energy use. Some items can only be made with a limited selection of materials, and some of these substances are inherently harmful to the natural environment. The intrinsic properties of materials inevitably constrain recyclability. But even where it seems unlikely, there may be room for improvement.

We can see this with the internal combustion engine, whose notoriously thirsty appetite for finite fossil fuels is now being tempered with innovative efficiency technologies. These changes minimize harmful emissions, promote wise fuel use, and facilitate co-operation with greener tech like the electric motor.

With less complex products, recyclability and energy efficiency can be far simpler. Product makers have begun to embrace a cradle-to-cradle view of numerous products in recent years, making everything from underwear to kitty litter and golf balls out of reusable materials.

Of course, ecology is not the only consideration when choosing the best materials for a product, but granting its importance in the process of materials selection is a substantial step in the right direction.

 

Resources for Designers

When it comes to choosing eco-friendly materials, designers have more choices than ever before. Ecolect, for example, maintains an online database of green materials that can be used for a variety of industrial design projects.

Third-party certifiers, like Energy Star and the Forest Stewardship Council, have become a popular way of communicating green credibility to consumers. Some certifiers are useful sources of eco-savvy materials, like sustainably-harvested wood; others provide a stamp of approval of a finished product’s ability to, for instance, save energy.

 

Competitive Advantage

The latest research suggests these green design trends are becoming increasingly demand-driven. According to a 2013 survey by brand innovation firm BBMG, over a third of consumers globally, including 40 percent of millennials, believe that status, style, and environmentalism are all intertwined. The firm’s conclusion: Green is the new black.

Meanwhile, mainstream brands are finding that recycling helps ensure maximum value is extracted from raw materials. Today, Levi is selling designer jeans made from recycled plastic bottles, and Nike is marketing sneakers that produce 12 percent as much manufacturing waste. Earlier this month, Target joined the fray with its new “Sustainable Product Standard.”

As commitment to sustainability increasingly distinguishes brands from one another, green product design is swiftly becoming a source of competitive advantage, one that’s likely to divide winners from losers in future markets.