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

The power of a stamp

By David Laituri on May 4, 2010

I attended a sustainability conference recently in which the main speaker, a seasoned LCA engineer, gave an overview of the LCA process, using range of products as examples. During his overview, he pointed out the stark differences between the big-impact elements and the small ones and suggested, in so many words, that an impact really must be big enough to be worth any effort in an LCA-driven impact reduction exercise.

That’s where he lost me.

This emphasis on big impact elements may make sense on paper - but what happens when all of those small, ‘insignificant’ impact elements on a lifecycle BOM from literally millions of products gang up in one place at one time? A good example is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another is from Lake Erie where I grew up, pictured in the photo above. CO2, lead, Mercury and DDT also come to mind – small and seemingly insignificant at their original point of use, nasty once they reconvene elsewhere. Over time, and displaced from their original LCA, insignificant elements can accumulate into a much larger problem.

From our start, Vers has been committed to making a difference in the total environmental impact of our products, anywhere in the BOM, at any point in the lifecycle continuum, regardless of its size. A difference is a difference, period.

Some of these reductions are fun to talk about but are absurdly small, like eliminating the twist ties. Others are monumental and hopelessly un-compressible, such as PC boards. Still others remain well outside of our ownership boundaries and can only influenced by our evangelism.

According to Sustainable Minds software, for instance, 51% of the total environmental impact of one of our sound systems occurs at the point of manufacture; 82% of that is due to PC board production alone. Only .004% of total environmental impact can attributed to packaging and only .0003% can be attributed to transportation. We’ve audited a range of similar products, and while we score significantly better in all categories, it’s clear they wrestle with the same challenges we do. Given their relative size, should you even bother optimizing packaging or streamlining shipping? Of course you should.

In a recent development, we have begun ramping up a new manufacturer on one of our sound systems, and have set a goal of a 5% reduction in manufacturing impact with the new factory. It may sound like a small, easy to achieve goal, but since we were so aggressive with impact reductions on the first generation, the only real reduction opportunity left was with the PC boards.

When this challenge was presented the right way to our new manufacturer’s engineering team, they had no problem showing up the previous manufacturer’s PC board layout work. We essentially called their electronic engineers ‘chicken’, and they were up for a good fight. In the end they were able to eliminate roughly 2 postage stamps’ worth of unused PC board real estate to achieve our 5% reduction goal.

While it would be ideal to simply focus on making the big changes to the areas of highest environmental impact, in practice it really comes down to making any impact reduction possible, wherever it can be made – large or small.

image credit: David Laituri