Sustainable Design: Eight Phases and a Different Mindset

Sustainable Design: Eight Phases and a Different Mindset
For a product to be sustainable from cradle to grave, eight phases of the life cycle must be considered during design. However, a strategic plan to integrate design for sustainability into the entire business operation is often lacking. Designing with prolonging of use and end of life in mind is therefore a complex operation that requires strong leadership, argue Remko de Bruijn and Pim Rossen.

Car, electrical cabinet, refrigerator, sofa ... companies marketing industrial products or slow-moving consumer goods have long faced the challenge of making their products more environmentally and socially responsible. Not only because of the increasing number of requirements from governments and regulatory bodies, but consumer demand for sustainable, less energy-guzzling or more responsibly produced products is also growing. Moreover, several raw materials are in limited supply, and, because of continuity, it may become necessary to recover and reuse materials at the end of a product's life. The manufacturing industry will therefore continue to want and need to adapt.

However, formulating a design approach that considers the entire life cycle - from concept to recovery - is a complex matter. Traditionally, companies are primarily concerned with design, procurement, production, and sales. Once that refrigerator or cell phone reaches the intermediary retailer or customer, the job is basically done (except for warranty). To be maximally sustainable, design precisely with prolonging of use and end-of-life in mind. What happens to that phone or refrigerator when the user is due for a new one? Is it easily repairable? This requires a completely different way of thinking and working throughout the company; not only in the design or production department, but also in the return logistics and the work that must take place afterwards. We distinguish eight phases that must be well thought through at the design stage to ultimately be successful and make sustainability work in your favor. Thinking through those phases must be done from the beginning of the design phase if you want to sell a fully sustainable product.

The eight phases in sustainable design

  1. Revenue model & collaboration
    In what way will you make money from a product? If this is, for example, by selling replacement parts, then it should be very easy to change those.

  2. Material use & production
    The materials you want or need to use for a more sustainable product may have different properties and manufacturing processes that affect the design.

  3. Outbound logistics
    Making transportation of products to point of sale more sustainable, such as designing more efficient packaging that allows more to fit in a truck or adjusting lead times so that more can be transported by rail and water.

  4. Sales
    Make the sales process as sustainable as possible, with as little waste as possible. But also help customers to make more sustainable choices. Other revenue models also require different roles and responsibilities: salespeople may be with other parties.

  5. Usage & being in operation
    Good understanding of customer behavior so that customers use the product optimally and intuitively.

  6. Service & maintenance
    Improve and simplify maintenance when in use; in design especially by making devices more modular. Key challenge is in making replacement easy, with the same customer experience and confidence in the product.

  7. Return logistics
    Allowing for retrieval of products or parts of products, as well as deciding if and when this is a good idea.

  8. Recovery
    Making parts or materials available for reuse. It helps if the design allows parts to be easily separated without contamination or damage, as well as allowing large-scale application.

Adaptation of earning model
Sustainable product design often requires adaptation of the revenue model and collaboration (the first phase). For designers, it used to be especially important to surprise the customer and trump the competition. When designing a new or adapted generation of products, questions such as: can something be easily kept or repaired? Will I end up taking it in and recycling it? Who is in the best position to assess whether a customer needs an updated version? Designers by no means always have all the knowledge to answer such questions by themselves. Therefore, it is necessary to cooperate much more closely than before with other disciplines inside and outside the company. It is therefore not only important that all relevant functions are at the table, but also that this is done with a different attitude or mindset than before (see also: ’Sustainability As Key Role For The CFO’).
Companies are working on aspects of sustainability in several different departments, but this is often still not done in a sufficiently integrated way. A way of working in which every next step in the chain up to end of life is considered in the design phase turns out to be a huge mental step. Ultimately, this adjustment can even lead to a whole new business model, with a shift from pure production to also providing services in leasing, service, or repair.

From use to recycling
In this article, we want to talk specifically about how to consider, or even direct, what happens to the product during design after it is sold (phases 4 through 8). When it comes to usage (phase 5), it seems simple. Customers are particularly interested in products that use less energy because it saves them money. Yet a more energy-efficient design is not by definition the best design. With chips, it does seem to be the case. They are becoming smaller and - because less material is needed - cheaper. This benefits both user and manufacturer. With some devices, however, it is extremely expensive to make them more energy efficient, for example because it needs extraordinarily complex equipment. Then a different cost-benefit consideration must be made.
Service and maintenance (phase 6) are not just about designing products that need to be replaced less often. Another important thing is modular design, so that parts are easily replaceable and can be repaired, upgraded, and reused if necessary - so that products need to be thrown away less often. This way of operating is quite common in industry, but it is becoming increasingly common with consumer products as well. With the recent right-to-repair legislation, this can only accelerate.
Return flows (phase 7) are already well regulated in some areas in the Netherlands. Think of deposits on bottles and cans or exchanging your old phone when buying a new one. A good example is Cisco, which uses its hardware-as-a-service proposition to sell its customers operational hours and then determine when to service or replace the devices themselves. We expect that more standardization within an industry will further encourage reuse. Deposits work well if beer manufacturers use the same size bottles and do not, in order to stand out, bottle specialty beers in different shapes or sizes. If we want to recycle car batteries because there is a shortage of rare minerals, it is wise to agree that batteries should always be able to be disassembled.
Finally, the final stage, recovery (or reuse), is currently experiencing great attention under the banner of circularity. However, this only works if a company can further process those recovered devices. In particular, the ability to do the evaluation of the quality and usability of return streams is essential. Without sufficient storage space, ability and a suitable manufacturing facility for reuse, reclamation is not necessarily sustainable. Rather the opposite, as all those returns create transportation movements which precisely do not contribute to sustainability. Who conducts these activities can vary. Companies can, of course, partner with third parties to do so. However, this consideration is an important part of choosing the revenue model in phase 1.

Feedback loop
Even if all eight phases are well considered and a design is a success on the drawing board, it can still go wrong in practice - especially the more complex the chain and the longer the lifespan. It seems like a great idea to sell or lease a car battery for a relatively low price because your design focuses on taking back and recycling several parts and raw materials, and so you get value back upon return. The problem is when you discover after only four years that those parts are not usable after all because plugs or material quality has changed, and the recovery process is inefficient. A feedback loop, where the implementation is continuously monitored to ensure it is going as expected, is therefore essential. Is the product put onto the market really coming back? Does it indeed turn out to be suitable for reuse? If not: is that due to a production error or because users or logistics service providers were less careful with it than expected? This all should be known all as soon as possible to adjust the process or design.

Like a symphony
Directors are concerned with sustainability for a variety of reasons. At the very least, they need to be able to report on it in the annual report. At the other end of the spectrum, they do it with the expectation of generating more income. Across the spectrum, success is only possible if significantly more aspects are taken into account in product design than traditionally. This can even be a make or break in achieving the desired benefits.
Executives must ensure that the product design department considers the eight phases of the life cycle to design products sustainably and actually verify it. If this leads to a change in the revenue model because you are going to recycle, for example, it is crucial to examine whether the rest of the company has the ability to do it successfully and what it might eventually take to achieve it. Ultimately, sustainability efforts only work if the entire company - from manufacturing to service to CEO to trainee - takes accountability and works together as harmoniously as an orchestra when playing a symphony. Moreover, many orchestras will have to start playing a different kind of music. That will require different musicians, a new learning curve, great ambition, and a conductor with powerful leadership.

This essay was published in Management Scope 02 2024.