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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Brendan Baker

Shades of Green: The State of Environmentalism in Product Design

Brendan Baker

Shades of Green: The State of Environmentalism in Product Design

Research and practice of design for environment (DfE), a method of mitigating the environmental impacts of products, has spread since the early 1990s.  However, there has been less attention paid to understanding how much DfE has been adopted by industry and what contextual factors encourage this adoption among firms.  This study addresses this gap by conducting a broad survey to understand the extent of DfE adoption among industry and a series of semi-structured interviews to understand the drivers and barriers.

The survey revealed several characteristics about the current state of environmentalism in product design.  Among the environmental impacts considered, product durability is the most common, water requirements during use and embodied energy the least so.  Material databases, various forms of life cycle analysis and blacklists are commonly used tools.  There is a significant amount of environmental consideration early in design processes, when decisions can have greater eventual environmental impact, but much less quantification of these impacts.  As design processes progress, the amount of overall consideration drops, but the level of impact quantification increases.  The study revealed few differences for products of differing complexity and from organizations of differing size, but significant differences between design consultancies and manufacturers.  Respondents reported that environmentalism was generally important within their organizations, and overwhelmingly, that this was increasing.  This was coupled with significant personal incentivization to consider environmentalism.

The context which best supports adoption of DfE has a corporate structure with few levels of hierarchy, communication between functional groups, at least a minimum level of systematization and knowledge sharing systems.  The receptive cultural context is innovative, supportive of risk-taking, team-oriented, mildly process-oriented and encouraging of change. It was most evident where employees had control over their work and looked beyond the firm’s borders to consider their place in the community.  While these trends were similar for consultancies and manufacturers, the barriers, drivers and patterns for DfE adoption differed.