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

Six ways to build momentum in a down market

By David Laituri on June 12, 2009

I recently attended a small but enthusiastic gathering of sustainable design practitioners at the Designer’s Accord town hall meeting held in Boston. There was no shortage of passion in the room and there were plenty of good ideas to share, but the consensus amongst all was clear: if sustainable design was challenging to practice in a good economy, it’s even more difficult in a bad one.

Whether a consultant outsider or a corporate insider, everyone I spoke to seemed to feel an increased sense of powerlessness to affect the kinds of changes that need to be made. Faced with much tighter project budgets, most find that emphasis on project cost reduction is quickly eclipsing emphasis on sustainability.

Securing strong commitment from the top, getting buy-in from ‘gate keepers’ like a client’s engineers, and even waiting until the economy improves to resume the effort were brought up as solutions to this dilemma. Not enough, in my opinion.

Having split my career between both corporate and consulting environments, I could empathize with the group. As a design consultant in a competitive market with an urgent charge like sustainable design, I know that it would be tempting to call the activity out in a capabilities presentation or proposal or even frame it as a separate phase with its own methodology.

The irony is that the more it’s separated from the standard design process, the easier it is to eliminate sustainable design when budgets are tight. Like the finished products themselves, though, sustainable design really shouldn’t add cost to the product, cost more to execute as a project or require its own phase. It should be baked in.

There are plenty of unconventional, out-of-the-box ways to build momentum in sustainable design, even when you haven’t been asked specifically to do so. Try to think of it as just another design challenge.

  • Cover the basics – It goes without saying -- make sure you fully exhaust the options that are completely within your control first. Everything you do should follow sound material choice and design for disassembly practice: specify screws vs. adhesives or snaps where possible, mechanically separate dissimilar materials, choose materials with the most robust recycling infrastructure, mark all your parts, etc. This is well-understood territory and a fundamental part of any good sustainable design methodology. The more that sustainable thinking is designed in, the greater the likelihood that it will actually be implemented.
  • Regulations are your friend – EU standards are often higher the US standards (ie: RoHS, WEEE) and even some California standards are set higher than the rest of the country (ie: energy consumption requirements and air quality requirements). Regardless of where the product is ultimately sold, specify adherence to the strictest standard or regulation in any category. They are powerful, clearly defined and easy to test for compliance. Not adhering to the highest standard now, it could be argued, could mean increased cost and loss of access to some markets down the road. When you adhere to the highest standards, everybody wins.
  • Offer a field trip – We’re big advocates of spending time upstream; hundreds of small but meaningful decisions can only be made on the factory floor. It’s surprising sometimes how quickly decisions can be made there and how the impact reduction can add up. Offer to pick up the cost of a trip and/or offer to absorb all or part of your time to visit the manufacturer, even if they are halfway around the world. In the end, it’s a small investment to assure that the sustainable design effort is actually implemented in full. Some would say ‘our client usually handles that part’ or ‘they don’t usually invite us to come along.’ Be proactive, get your foot in the door, insist on coming along for the ride. If you’re not fully committed to the lower impact solution, why should they be?
  • Change the metrics – In a past life, I was able to calculate the difference between using EPS foam packaging (petroleum-based, unrecyclable) and paper pulp trays (100% post consumer, 100% recyclable) over a range of projects to demonstrate that the average 12% difference in package volume could save the company 5 full shipping containers worth of space per year. ‘$20K worth of free shipping’ was far more influential with senior management than ‘100% recycled & 100% recyclable’. Can it save time? Can it reduce returns? Is it less expensive to transport? Can more be fit on a truck? If the direct approach isn’t working, you need to find a more creative, often financially based argument to convince your audience to do the right thing.
  • Keep the change – On our first product, we did the quick LCA impact comparison between painting small parts with 20% re-grind ABS and using 100% virgin ABS with molded-in color. Since the factory didn’t have to waste material up front in matching a color standard and could use scrap from other molding projects, the regrind solution came out ahead. However, we still allowed them to charge us the premium for virgin ABS. They saw a chance to make a little extra money on the material and it assured that the lower impact solution would be implemented. A very small victory, but it worked.
  • Give away credit – Designers and design firms are usually good self-promoters, but all too often they tend to dominate the spotlight when it comes their way. Try turning some of that self-promotional energy towards highlighting your client’s or your senior management’s sustainability efforts and give them the credit for the results – ALL the credit. Helping to position your client or your senior management as emerging ‘green champions’ can go a long way towards assuring that sustainable design becomes a higher priority the next time around.

If it seems a bit like gaming the system, you’re right – but there’s nothing wrong with that. It takes more than a bit of persistence, tenacity and big-picture creativity to overcome the roadblocks designers often face.

Resistance to new thinking should be expected, even anticipated – and sustainable design practitioners need to become experts at working around this resistance. So much progress has been made over the last few years in bringing the need for sustainable design to the forefront, now is not the time to lose momentum.

Do you have a success story about overcoming resistance? If so, we would like to hear about it. Reply in the box provided below.