Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Life cycle thinking in daily life

By Joep Meijer on July 20, 2009

Sustainable design is more than a philosophy for the work space. It should also become a philosophy for living, driving the decisions we make every minute of the day. For some people it is like dieting; sometimes you go overboard and sometimes you forget about it altogether.

I like to integrate more and more sustainable design philosophies in my personal life as well. I have the most fun uncovering what is behind the immediate impact of our choices; asking “what all happened before I made this decision, and what will have to happen because I made this decision?”

Let me talk through some of my thought processes, and how they apply across the life/work divide.

Let’s talk about food OK, so you are hungry and want to eat something. What do you do? Should you go for fresh, local, organic, all Whole Foods, or that delicious burger that is staring at you from the billboard?

There is no simple answer, but some things are clearly not sustainable — for example, fresh produce that is flown in from around the world. And yet this is still what you can find at Whole Foods.

Also, driving 15 miles to the farmers’ market is also not all that sustainable. My response was to start a vegetable garden. Man, the worst decision in my life! This home-grown food is so good, fresh and crispy, I hardly ever go out for dinner anymore; the quantity and quality of food elsewhere is just so disappointing. Now I have to focus on inviting good company over just to compensate!

And the point is… In Sustainable Design I believe that it is good to know where the materials and components that you are using come from. Go visit some of your suppliers, talk to them, and ask them how they approach the design principles that are important to you. You might find some pleasant surprises, they might even be able to expand your options for your next design project.

Water = energy Another example is the link between water and energy use -- not inside my house or office, but before that, before we even see it. My city, Austin TX owns the water and electricity utility. They have stated that the electricity bill for the city is 50% for consumer energy consumption, and 50% to clean up and deliver tap water to our doors. So, being smart about water use really improves the use of two scarce resources in my part of the world: water and clean energy. By saving water, we reduce electricity peak load in the summer -- always the dirtiest and most expensive energy to generate.

My response? I installed a few rainwater barrels. They are not quite large enough to supply all of my needs, but I headed towards self-sufficiency in electricity and water consumption. To do both completely would cost me an initial investment of about $20,000.

That led to another idea: why are there no mortgages that will make it possible to wrap this into the principle, that will pay for itself over the years with the savings on utility bills? I’d sign up for that instantly!

And the point is… The lesson here is that the product that you are designing right now can have ”longer legs” than you first thought. Some producers have discovered that they can secure more money midterm by changing from a product-based company to one that is service based. Think about an office furniture lease, or a product that will call the supplier for service when it needs it. Garage doors like that do exist, and come with a ten year service contract. That’s additional income, or at the very least a powerful competitive differentiator, for the company that thought beyond product sales alone to incorporating a service component.

What can you do with your product that can induce a breakthrough in your sector of the economy?

And the ultimate point… The same principles that guide us through the sustainability of our daily lives can teach us how to be more sustainable in our design projects. The reverse is also true. It has been rewarding for me, my family and the environment to try to push this cross-pollination as far as it will go. It is a journey that never seems to end.