The Many Faces of Sustainable Design
Now that you have a bit of background on sustainability, let’s talk about sustainable design. Sustainable design is the term we’ve chosen to represent the intelligent application of the principles of sustainability to the realm of engineering and design. This guide focuses on products and similar manufactured components, but the same principles can also apply to architecture, civic planning, and other realms of the “built.”
Furthermore, “sustainable design” is just one term used to describe the use of sustainability principles in the design and development of commercial and industrial products. Other often-used terms include sustainable engineering, environmentally sustainable design, eco-design, and green design. All are essentially synonymous for most purposes.
There are however several terms related to this topic that have distinct meanings. Designers interested in sustainability-focused tools and techniques will find these concepts useful to at least know about, if not incorporate in their work. For more information on each, see the Appendices.
Design for Disassembly
Sometimes shortened to DfD, this is a design approach that enables the easy recovery of parts, components, and materials from products at the end of their life. Recycling and reuse are noble intentions, but if a product cannot be disassembled cleanly and effectively they are impossible, or at least cost prohibitive to achieve.
If you’d like to learn more about DfD, there’s a really great set of Design for Disassembly Guidelines (PDF) produced by Active Disassembly Research Ltd., and a similar set of rules and case studies for building produced by the City of Seattle (WA, USA) and others called Design for Disassembly in the Built Environment (PDF).
Design for the Environment
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created the Design for the Environment (DfE) program in 1992 to decrease pollution and the human and environmental risks that it entails. It recognizes consumer and industrial & institutional products deemed to be safer for human health and the environment through an evaluation and product labeling program. Furthermore, the program defines best practices in a variety of industries, and identifies safer chemical alternatives.
You can learn more at EPA’s DfE website, http://www.epa.gov/dfe/.
Also known as extended product responsibility (EPR), this approach is based on the principle that all those involved in the lifecycle of a product should share responsibility for reducing its environmental impact. It often results in voluntary partnerships among manufacturers, retailers, government, and non-government organizations to set up effective waste-reduction systems and practices. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Product Stewardship program “has primarily focused on end-of-life considerations as one means of encouraging more environmentally conscious design and greater resource conservation. However to address the full range of product lifecycle issues, the Product Stewardship program also works with other EPA programs, as well as various public- and private-sector stakeholders, to promote ‘greener’ design, greener product standards, and greener purchasing practices.”
Again, you can learn more about this concept at EPA’s dedicated website, http://www.epa.gov/epr/.
Cradle to Cradle
William McDonough and Michael Braungart popularized the notion that product lifecycles should be considered not as cradle to grave, but as cradle to cradle. The key idea here is that there is no such thing as a “grave” at the end of use, since everything goes somewhere. As they say, there is no such thing as “away.” Given that, in order to be sustainable all of the elements of a product that has reached the end of its useful life should be designed to go somewhere where it can serve as the input to another system, a concept often characterized as “waste = food.” While product development processes may focus on cradle to gate, cradle to grave, or even gate to gate plans, effective lifecycle planning needs to find ways to close all possible loops.
Learn more about the concept from McDonough and Braungart’s coauthored book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (amazon link), and from the dedicated C2C page on their for-profit company’s website.
Nature has spent millions of years developing some very interesting and effective solutions to a wide range of design challenges. Biomimicry is “the practice of designing materials, processes, or products that are inspired by living organisms or by the relationships and systems formed by living organisms.” Such inspiration comes in two forms, as either “challenge to biology” or “biology to challenge.” In the first case, a design challenge exists and designers search nature for potential solutions. The second case entails starting with an interesting biological property that researchers or scientists attempt to apply more broadly or commercialize. Note that just because a solution is based on nature doesn’t mean that it’s inherently healthy or sustainable. For instance, nature has created plenty of toxic substances that could be extremely harmful if misapplied.
Read more about this science, and the work of some “biomimics”, by picking up a copy of Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (amazon link) or by visiting the website of the not-for-profit Biomimicry Institute.
Green chemistry focuses on reducing the generation and use of hazardous chemicals, decreasing pollution at its source. Paul Anastas and John Warner published the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in 1998 and set out the following design goal:
Chemical products and processes should be designed to the higest level of this hierarchy and be cost-competitive in the market.
1. Source Reduction/Prevention of Chemical Hazards
2. Reuse or Recycle Chemicals
3. Treat Chemicals to Render Them Less Hazardous
4. Dispose of Chemicals Properly
Learn more about Green Chemistry by reading Anastas and Warner’s coauthored book, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice (amazon link), or by visiting the website of Dr. Warner’s for-profit company, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.
Many companies find that promoting the environmental responsibility, or even just the benefits, of their products can be a powerful marketing angle. Touting the “green” aspects of existing products, processes, or systems has become almost the standard in many industries. Some companies’ messages actually outstrip their reality, leading to what is generally called “greenwashing.” As will be discussed later in the guide, there are now quite strict guidelines issued by the Federal Trade Commission about making “green” claims. When talking with sales and marketing people in their company, product designers will find it helpful to know what benefits of their sustainable design and engineering efforts can be claimed publicly.
Learn more about Green Marketing by viewing this short video on the topic produced for Sustainable Life Media’s SustainableBrands Boot Camp, or view the FTC’s Green Guides and related resources at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/reporter/greengds.shtm.
 Asheen Phansey, “Biomimicry,” Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability: The Business of Sustainability (New York: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2009), p. 37.
 Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press (1998)
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