Designing sustainable products and services

Each month, we will highlight a recent development, initiative or trend in the technology and SDGs landscape. This month, we share insights from a new 2030Vision paper on integrating sustainability into the development of digital technology solutions.

There is increasing awareness of the critical role that designing products and services has in driving sustainability. In particular, traction has been growing around the concept of valuing resources more effectively and shifting towards a circular economy.

Nike, WRAP and the Association of Plastic Recyclers, have produced design guides to help designers and engineers consider alternative materials, prolonged use, repairability and/or recyclability when making decisions about new products within their sectors. Terracycle recently launched Loop, a system designed to provide people’s favorite brands in durable, reusable packaging thus reducing waste. And Project Effective is a collaboration between 12 European companies across the plastic value chain who aim to redesign polyamides and polyesters from renewable feedstocks and ensure they are recyclable or biodegradable.

The sustainability ‘prize’ from these initiatives is significant. UN Environment recently estimated that using value retention processes such as repair, reuse and remanufacturing would not only reduce the need for raw materials but could also “reduce greenhouse gas emissions in some sectors by 79 to 99%".

To promote discussion and encourage this shift, 2030Vision has produced a new paper sharing insights from conversations with six firms from across the digital technology market on the approaches they are taking to integrate sustainability into their research and development (R&D) and product design practices. Below we share three insights and examples of emerging best practice from this paper.

Connecting sustainability teams with design and engineering teams

Although there are many ways to distribute sustainability and R&D related functions within organizations, interviewees emphasized that ensuring a strong connection between the two is beneficial. This connection promotes better conversations and ultimately improved sustainable design outcomes. Two innovative ways of achieving this dialogue emerged from 2030Vision’s conversations.

First, a large software company, deciding that their clients rather than their internal operations would provide the greatest opportunities for sustainability, set up a cross-functional executive steering committee. The committee’s remit is to embed sustainability thinking across the organization. It is chaired by the Chief Sustainability Officer with members drawn from R&D, IT, Supply Chain, HR, Facilities and Governmental Affairs functions.

Another company took the different approach of embedding a senior technologist within their Corporate Social Responsibility team. This individual works with the product development team and customers to integrate sustainability principles into product design and use.

Sustainability through virtualizing products and services

Virtualization, or the separation of technology services from hardware, has transformed digital ecosystems. It allows the use of a physical machine’s full capacity by distributing its capabilities among many users or environments.

The digital companies interviewed cited many benefits of virtualization particularly for achieving sustainability outcomes. For example, they shared that it can lower energy use and related costs, increase product life, improve customer utilization and also reduce the number of physical devices needed.

It is not a risk free route to success however. Digital companies have found they need to help customers overcome fears relating, for example, to quality, reliability, security and data privacy. And in addition, they mentioned they have had to grapple with trade-offs such as how to provide something that is customised but also standardised, to enable scale.

Nonetheless, leading companies are embracing virtualization and developing products that take advantage of the reduced requirements and therefore opportunities for sustainability. As an early example of the “sharing economy,” the digital technology sector has created an ecosystem that achieves goals other sectors are only beginning to realize. Several of the firms interviewed recognize this achievement and make it a key pillar of their sustainability strategy.

Designing for sustainability criteria

Companies interviewed have found success in sustainable design by employing goal focused “design for X” programs where X could be “environment” or “recyclability” or “circularity”. These programs allow sustainability to be incorporated into the daily running of existing business processes. Adidas provide an example from the Apparel sector. They recently released their Loop trainer. Made from 100% recyclable thermoplastic polyurethane, the shoes are designed specifically to be remade into a new pair of trainers at the end of their life. Adidas say that the project aims to tackle the problem of plastic waste through enabling circular manufacturing.

Find out more about 2030Vision’s work in this area

The insights shared in this paper were produced as part of work that 2030Vision is doing to provide best practice around sustainable design for technology companies. To find out more read the full paper and/or send us an email.

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