Most people have a broad-brush sense for the relative impacts of major design choices. For instance, intuition alone will tell you that a lighter version of a product would save on transportation costs or that a more energy-efficient product would have less of an environmental impact. Unfortunately, there are plenty of counter-intuitive trade-offs and costs unknown to the average designer.
Besides often being uninformed, many people are actually misinformed about the impacts of certain materials. Sometimes materials are attacked in the press and public opinion, painted as evil, toxic stuff. PVC has a terrible reputation, even though analysis will show that in certain applications it is the more environmentally responsible choice. In some cases, it is just because they are the most visible that certain components get the brunt of the negative attention. Transportation and packaging fall into this category, even when they might be far from the biggest problem in a given product's lifecycle.
On the flip side, there are some very significant marketing dollars at work convincing people how "green" some materials are. The cotton industry touts their product as a natural material, "The fabric of our lives." While it is true that cotton is a product of nature, its environmental impact is pretty substantial, thanks to the amount of water and insecticides used in conventional cotton farming. In fact, cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.). Plus, there is the ongoing issue of the increased use of genetically modified cotton. Cotton's environmental footprint has gotten much better over the years, but the "natural" option might not turn out to be the best sustainable option, despite the hype.
Intuition is fine if that's all you've got, but there are plenty of ways to do better. For example, we'll test a few of Tom and Priscilla's intuited assumptions along the way—like her assumption that manufacturing her cups locally would be better.
Intuition and the Three Choices
- Impacts – Any
- Scope – System boundary is created by areas engineer is directly familiar with; Any life cycle stages, although usually focused on the most visible ones, such as Use
- Metrics – Usually in the form of comments, although could be checkmarks, or scores
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