A number of ambitious and achievable sustainability targets exist for governments all over the globe, considering everything from air quality to pollution, carbon emission to water quality. To help achieve these goals, companies have looked to adopt more sustainable practices and develop innovative solutions that make their brand ‘green.’

However, the UK is currently projected to miss a number of important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identified for 2030.

What’s Wrong with the Current Setup?

Sustainability is a hot topic, and with good reason: our world is getting warmer and there’s little sign of it slowing down. As we continue to deplete natural resources, we add more and more to landfill.

To have any hope of meeting the ambitious 2030 SDGs, companies need to develop products and services that have economic, social, and ecological benefits. Corporations big and small all have a part to play. 

Every business worth its salt has identified the need to reduce emissions, source materials sustainably, and minimise the impact it has on our environment, to name just a few targets. 

A Willingness to Change

Over the last decade or so, 4D Products has met lots of new businesses to discuss various product development projects. However, to speak with a customer who has serious ecological considerations for their product on their wishlist is somewhat of a rarity, never mind being even near the top of the list.

Recently, we began work on the design of an enclosure for a piece of electronic technology for a new client. It has been a welcome breath of fresh air, to work with a company that wants us to put maximum effort into finding and using a material that is as ecologically sound as possible. This particular brand is built on sustainability from the ground up, so it is in their best interests to do so.

Too often brands that aren’t built on sustainability don’t give it anywhere near enough of a thought, let alone importance. For these companies, it is all about maximising profits for the short to medium term.

This is understandable in a small way, but what they don’t realise is the long term benefits to designing and producing sustainable products. Not just for the environment, but for the economy too.

Evading Responsibility

Recognising the costs associated with any business change, certain companies employ greenwashing tactics and publish vague promises that allow them to delay costly product redevelopment. 

For large, global enterprises, it’s easy to employ marketing teams that use tactics to distract customers, namely by showcasing paper-thin and ineffective eco-friendly ‘solutions.’ Big brands can hide behind green promises without actually having to show their working. 

And in product design, there are several different ways to incorporate sustainability, all the way from design and procurement, to manufacturing and dispatch.

Research and Development

R&D teams in particular can identify environmental ‘hotspots’ and focus on relevant eco-design principles that are trending. These are the teams that have one finger on the pulse. Whether it involves using a brand-new eco-material or communicating newly discovered environmental opportunities, responsible product design begins here.

Competition – East vs West

Unfortunately, western businesses have to compete with very low cost competitors from countries like China, India and Vietnam. That’s why, when designing and developing new products, a company’s primary concern is to consider how they can survive if the cost of making their product is too high in comparison to those who are employing cheaper alternatives?

So, how could we level the playing field. Can it even be made more equal. Does there need to be more stringent government regulations on eco criteria, like importing from countries that take advantage of cheap labour by not paying their workers a fair wage, or requiring companies to use more locally sourced materials to help reduce the impact of long distance transportation?

Materials and Packaging

Product development teams have a growing number of choices when selecting the material for a new product. However choices are not often black or white, with one claimed eco benefit playing off against another material property or consideration. This is true of the product itself, and the packaging used to deliver it to the end user. Why not cut back on the use of non-recyclable packaging altogether, and then incorporate ‘low impact’ packaging that can be recycled, wherever it’s required to be used.

Raw materials that are used should be used sparingly and should minimise waste. New approaches can be found by businesses, whether sourcing materials with less of an environmental footprint, or finding clever uses for waste materials, such as Land Rover’s project to create surfboards from recycling plastic foam from early vehicle designs.

Production

What processes are used to manufacture a product? Can the impact be reduced? And can the procedures be redesigned in order to be more environmentally friendly?

Plastic gets a bad press, largely due to the types of products that are easily disposable or that are difficult to use again, such as thermoset plastic. 

But some plastics are less energy hungry than others during the manufacturing process, and can be recycled many times. If you think about product life cycle, surely it’s better to use a material that gives a product a long life.

That said, even for the plastics that are seen as non-recyclable, there’s now a chemical process that recycles them by breaking down their composition, meaning those particular plastic products can be melted down again and again to form new things, which would lead to less plastics going to landfills and subsequently finding their way to our oceans.

As you can see, there are many ecological and economical factors that businesses consider when they look to develop new products, but ultimately it comes down to their willingness. The more willing they are, the more sustainable they can be.

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