The Greening of Design, from A to D

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by: Joel Makower

The greening of design is gaining interest, and I’m not simply talking about our fast-approaching conference on the topic, Greener by Design. Last week, Business for Social Responsibility and the design firm IDEO released a new free report (download – PDF) showing how companies are infusing sustainability into their design processes in ways that have led to innovative products that offer value to consumers.

The report offers an "A-B-C-D Approach to Making Better Products," as the subtitle promises. And while the real-life process may not be quite that alphabetic, or simple, the report offers a useful framework for how to think about product design and development through the lens of environmental sustainability, including some key questions that never seem to get asked.

The report begins with the observation that product design challenges are becoming increasingly more acute, due to companies’ need to extend their product relationships up and down the value chain, including upstream sourcing and downstream recovery; increased regulations and demands for product transparency; the growth of global product recalls; and the wider range of factors companies must consider in product design and management, such as toxicity, recyclability, and renewability.

As the report’s authors note, many of these factors "lie outside the expertise of traditional designers and product managers." Moreover, companies developing sustainable design practices are recognizing that success in green product design involves going beyond integrating new tools into traditional design practices. It involves a whole new way of thinking about products.

The report outlines the "sustainable design intelligence" needed for an organization to design better products and create lasting business and customer value, including the aforementioned "A-B-C-D" approach that breaks sustainability into four behaviors:

  • Assessing material impacts of projects and design capacity in an organization
  • Bridging functions and people to make valuable, tractable product redesigns
  • Creating generative internal and external learning projects
  • Diffusing lessons and accountability mechanisms that build literacy and affect better decision making around the organization

They write:

Leading companies are transitioning away from a "pipeline" model of product development, in which groups throw and receive designs "over a wall" without understanding the upstream and downstream implications. The alternative, more "integrative product design" process featured in this report draws together disconnected groups and helps them strategize development of the competencies needed to improve products. It empowers eyes and ears around the organization to identify and manage sustainability issues emerging on the horizon.

What’s the upside of all this? The report outlines a range of business benefits: better product performance, strengthened market position, improved compliance, reduced risks, increased organizational agility, improved morale and productivity, and "serendipitous innovation," such as when green thinking uncovers unnecessary complexity that adds costs, or when suppliers identify better-performing, cost-improving options.

The report offers examples of how the A-B-C-D framework has worked in companies like Clorox, Herman Miller, and Nike. Some of these stories have been well-covered elsewhere, but in the context of the BSR-IDEO framework, they take on a new dimension.

Part of what these companies’ stories have in common is that they managed to break out of the siloed product design process, building cross-functional teams that go beyond technical and customer specifications to engage a broader swath of the company. That’s a big barrier for many companies, where design specifications is left to engineers, designers, and a handful of others, often without regard to sustainability commitments and goals. (We’ll be having a session at Greener by Design on how big companies have managed to cross that chasm.)

In the end, the biggest need for companies in aligning their product design process with their sustainability goals may be to redesign the company itself: its ability to share knowledge and insights across brands, divisions, business units, and job functions in a way that brings the best and brightest ideas to the table.

And maybe even to redesign the table itself.

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