Getting to the roots of eco-friendly design

Marketing products as “eco-friendly” or “green solutions” is seen as a necessary characteristic as consumers and companies increasingly buy with environmental impact in mind. “Green wash”, as those in the industry commonly refer to it, is the process whereby a product claims some eco-friendly credentials but these claims are not based on sound principles. At Cambridge Consultants, we believe that sustainable product design should not be an after-thought or a marketing gimmick, but be a fundamental consideration in innovation.

We have defined the term ‘Ecovation’ to describe an innovation process that sees a product dismantled, studied and analysed in such a way that the most unsustainable elements can be identified. The innovation process can then be directed to specifically reconsider areas where the most benefit can be gained through radical changes, redesign or simple but effective “tweaks”. It is not simply a matter of finding ‘greener’ materials to re-package it, but to identify the precise design and use issues that make a product harmful to the environment and change them. Where the greatest impact occurs in the product lifecycle obviously varies depending on the product. It could be anything from the raw materials or the way the product consumes energy, the packaging that is used to protect it or even how it is disposed of at the end of its life.

The key to a successful green product is improving a product’s impact on the environment without compromising on cost or performance, which is a key balance that the Ecovation process achieves. Currently it is very easy for products to be categorised as either ‘performance’ or ‘green’ products. But there is no reason why this should be the case. By finding ways to maintain or even improve product functionality, without using elements that make it unsustainable, its impact on the environment can be significantly improved – “eco” without compromise.

Making a difference

To drill down to the heart of what within the product causes the biggest environmental impact we must ask a number of questions: How is the product used? How much energy does the product consume during its life? What materials are used? How frequently does the product need to be replaced and for what reasons? By taking a systematic approach to analysing the existing product lifecycle the innovation team can ensure that the design is focussed on the area where the most can be achieved whilst balancing this with criteria relating to maintaining or improving ease of use, cost and ability to communicate the benefits. Indeed a thorough assessment can also lead to designs with reduced production costs.

Subtracting material

Simply stripping out components and reducing materials does not necessarily make a significant difference. Sometimes, in order to address the greatest flaw of a product in terms of its environmental impact, it is actually necessary to add parts in order to change certain processes within it or reduce the energy consumption levels. Our vacuum cleaner concept, “Stem”, is an example of how adding components to a product can actually make the design more eco-friendly. By applying our ‘Ecovation’ design process to vacuum cleaner technology, we found that the raw materials actually have little impact on its environmental impact in comparison to the energy consumed during its life. Energy consumption can be affected by the engineering solution itself – for the vacuum cleaner project we investigated how flow paths could be optimised to maximise efficiency – as well as the way the consumer uses the product – and user research conducted by Cambridge Consultants showed potential for some intelligent use of sensing and feedback. So whilst using ‘greener’ materials to make the parts and components will have a little impact on the eco-friendliness of a vacuum cleaner, reducing the energy consumed during use can make a substantial difference.

The ‘Stem’ vacuum cleaner was designed to save on energy consumption by enabling the vacuum cleaner to automatically vary its power usage depending on the job being done. Whether using the floor head or the hose attachment, with this concept the user gets the power they need only when they need it. Although components have to be added, designing for efficiency of operation results in a reduction in energy use. The architecture changes can be applied to any upright vacuum cleaner.

Another technique we deployed to reduce energy consumption was the introduction of ‘stop-start’ technology to the vacuum cleaner. It automatically turns off when the user is not actively cleaning, for example when paused for moving furniture, and intelligently detects when it is about to be used again.

Critically, these changes in usage power consumption do not create a reduction in cleaning performance, but a substantial reduction in the amount of energy the machine consumes is achieved. And despite the added components the overall environmental impact of the vacuum cleaner is still significantly reduced.

Eco-friendly medical devices

A life cycle assessment can be applied to any product in any industry – the challenge is then to find an innovative way of removing the elements that contribute the greatest negative environmental impact, whilst maintaining performance.

Take an established product such as a blood-glucose monitor for diabetes sufferers. This is a product that is rarely acknowledged, from an eco-perspective, for its material wastage, though from a user perspective, the high numbers of single use disposable elements are a necessary annoyance.

Having conducted a life cycle assessment, we discovered that 70% of the environmental impact is due to the lancets, test strips and the multiple pieces of packaging protecting these components that are disposed of immediately after use. Depending on their monitoring regime users may need to use these disposable elements up to four times a day.

Using the Ecovation innovation process we designed a concept device to show how the environmental impact could be reduced. The lead concept combines the lancets and test strips in the monitor itself, creating an integrated, cartridge-based design with 28 tests included in each cartridge. Not only does this greatly reduce waste, it also makes the device easier to use. The cartridge design means the user only has to worry about loading the device once every 28 tests, has fewer bits to carry around and testing can be carried out much more discreetly.

The concept device achieves a 65% reduction in environmental impact, reducing the most wasteful components by integrating the functionality of three previously discrete consumables – the lancets, test strips and their packaging.

The business case for sustainable design

Cambridge Consultants has proved with its developments in the household appliance, medical device and consumer technology spaces that sustainable design is achievable if the correct process is followed. Designing products to be eco-friendly does not have to come at the cost of performance. It should not be an after-thought or marketing ploy, but a primary consideration that products have been designed to use the least energy and most appropriate material possible; enabling a substantiated marketing message.

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