Design for Sustainability

Design for Sustainability

Design for Sustainability (D4S) is one of the powerful strategies to put sustainability into practice. D4S is applicable for both products e.g., manufacturing of goods as well as packaging and services e.g. tourism or hospitality industry.

In D4S the businesses take environmental and social concerns as a key element in their long-term product or service innovation strategy. This implies that businesses incorporate environmental and social factors into product or service development throughout the life cycle of the product/service, throughout the supply chain, and taking cognizance of the local socio-economic surroundings.

D4S is thus driven by Life Cycle Thinking (LCT). LCT is about going beyond the traditional focus on production site and manufacturing processes. The main goals of LCT are to reduce a product’s or service’s resource use and emissions to the environment, increase reuse, recycling and recovery rates as well as improve its socio-economic performance through its life cycle. This may facilitate links between the economic, social and environmental dimensions within an organization and through its entire value chain involving all key stakeholders.

As Figure below shows, a product life cycle can begin with the extraction of raw materials from natural resources in the ground and the energy generation. Materials and energy are then part of production, packaging, distribution, use, maintenance, and eventually recycling, reuse, recovery or final disposal.  At every stage, efforts are needed to address sustainability.

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Take an example of a shirt. Shirts are often a combination of natural and synthetic fibres. To produce natural fibres (e.g., cotton), energy, fertilizers, water and pesticides are needed. For the synthetic fibres, fossil fuels are needed. In the next step, fibres are combined into cloth or textile.

During this process, water, energy and chemicals are used to give cloth its colour and other characteristics. From the cloth, shirts are being produced that are then packaged and distributed to retail shops. This leads to emissions, especially of the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). During its lifetime, components of the shirt may have travelled thousands of kilometres, since cloth production could have been in Asia, the production in North Africa and the retail in Europe.

After the consumer has purchased the shirt, he or she will discard the packaging and will use the shirt. What happens to the packaging is a question not easy to answer. During the use phase, the shirt might be used about 100 times and washed, dried and maybe ironed. Each of these steps has environmental impacts resulting from detergent, water and energy use.

Finally, when some parts of the shirt have worn out, it will be disposed. It is not possible to compost it because of the synthetic parts, and it may not be easy to recycle because of the mixed materials. The designer of the shirt should have thought about it in the first place.

The D4S approach encourages the designer to think of the “system” across the life cycle to come up with innovations as a response to meet the challenges. This cannot be done without consulting stakeholders, especially the consumers, regulators and the investors.

D4S approach is extremely relevant to the packaging industry.  Due to the environmental impacts across the life cycle and because of its “scale”, the packaging industry and the products themselves have received a bad press. Use of non-recyclable materials, too much single use plastic, excessive use of materials and resources, pressure on landfill and harm to marine and other environments – The list goes on and on. It is estimated that an average consumer in the western world will handle more than 50 packaged products / items every day. And this is one of the driving factors making everyone more aware of their ecological footprint – packaging is now so prevalent in every part of our lives.

D4S concept resulted in the term Sustainable packaging. Sustainable packaging involves increased use of life cycle inventory (LCI) and life cycle assessment (LCA) to help guide design, making and use of packaging which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. Sustainable packaging is today driven by regulations and consumer demand.

There is however resistance towards sustainable packaging even knowing the options. Common fears surround performance, costs, availability and compatibility with existing processes and systems. However, there are several significant benefits of switching to sustainable packaging. These include, improved brand and consumer perception (potential for increased sales), cost reductions through minimised material usage, Possible savings in storage and warehouse requirement (dependent on materials used) and reducing your organisation’s carbon footprint. Above all, there a Christmas gift of innovation!

Sustainability when mainstreamed in the form of D4S, makes the business compliant, competitive, cutting edge and climate friendly. The business needs to understand these 4Cs of practicing smart sustainability. The Packaging industry must respond, take advantage of D4S and provide benefit to all.

Dr. Modak, Executive President, Environmental Management Centre LLP and Director, Ekonnect Knowledge Foundation, Ex- Professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay is also a Member of Indian Resources Panel at MoEFCC, Member of Task Force on Sustainable Public Procurement at the Ministry of Finance. He has Drafted Report on Status on Resource Efficiency and Recommendations towards Circular Economy for NITI Aayog. Contributor to UNEP’s Green Economy report, Co-author of the Global Waste Management Outlook and Chief Editor of Asia Waste Management Outlook for the United Nations Environment.

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