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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Fall 2004 : Rethinking the Way We Design

Rethinking the Way We Design
How a company designs can enhance customer value, opening many doors to new markets.

By Boris Elisman

A commitment to environmental stewardship is, for most companies, no longer simply an option, but a requirement to be competitive in a global market. Governmental regulations, organized interests, consumer preferences and social expectations increasingly focus on protecting the natural world and ensuring a healthy environment for the future.

Today’s environmental leaders realize that the scope of the commitment has fundamentally changed as well. It has expanded from looking at a few isolated dimensions of environmental impact—such as manufacturing or recycling—to a broader vision that addresses a product’s environmental effects throughout its life cycle, from design to manufacture to customer use and finally to end-of-life recycling.

For an increasing number of companies, the solution lies in implementing a design for environment (DfE) program. Emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s, DfE programs generally encompass a comprehensive approach of assessing each stage of a product’s life for its environmental effects. The overarching goal of DfE is to optimize the manufacture, packaging, transport, use, disposal and recycling of products to limit their total impact on the environment while ensuring the highest quality, performance and reliability.

If that sounds like a big challenge, it is. Implementing a successful DfE program often forces companies to rethink the fundamental structure of their organizations, evolve their ingrained business practices and re-evaluate each step of their products’ life cycles. Another essential DfE requirement is achieving and managing ongoing compliance with complex environmental standards and regulations around the globe.

First consider the potential impact on the organization. Successful DfE programs typically rely on creating and empowering cross-functional teams to define, evaluate and meet technically feasible goals that satisfy or exceed environmental regulations or standards. As more and more companies have discovered, DfE-related efforts can’t be relegated to a specialized function centralized at the corporate level or on the periphery of product development—they must be incorporated into every step of the process, which can cause some growing pains.

But the responsibilities of DfE teams aren’t limited to assessing whether desired environmental improvements are simply possible. Now more than ever, they’re tasked with identifying and meeting market and end-user needs to fulfill sales, profit and market development objectives when developing green products. Plus, as the preference for environmentally designed products matures among consumers and influential corporate and government customers, it’s no longer enough to reduce energy consumption or increase the use of recycled materials. Green products must also perform on par with—or better than—their alternatives, and at a competitive price.

The Importance of Organizational Alignment
The models that integrated DfE teams adopt can vary. Representatives from environmental, R&D, product design, manufacturing, marketing, and operations and business functions, such as procurement and finance, should all be considered for participation. The integrated structure of DfE-influenced teams assures that environmental design goals, supply chain capabilities, cost issues and market needs are recognized, understood and accepted as necessary considerations in the product development process.

As many organizations have discovered, it can be helpful to designate a DfE lead on each product development team, someone whose day-to-day responsibilities can range from evaluating customer feedback and market research, environmental standards and regulations, competitive product features, and technical feasibility through a lens specifically focused on ecological and sustainable development issues.

The goal is not to create a separate case for environmental specifications that’s bolted onto
an existing product development process, however. Instead, environmental specifications must be fully incorporated at the earliest possible stage, serving as an additional plank in the product design platform that strengthens the collective interest and ownership in DfE throughout the organization.

By introducing its DfE program in 1992, HP was one of the first information technology companies to adopt the life cycle approach to environmental product design. The HP DfE program organizes its work around product stewards, who are charged with the dual responsibilities of understanding and anticipating environmental standards and regulations as well as identifying key points in product or packaging design for improving environmental performance. Product stewards at HP are integrated into product design teams and are instrumental in making sure environmental considerations are well represented throughout the product development process. HP’s program has yielded some significant successes in the more than 12 years since its implementation.

Lessons Learned

The central role of product stewards at HP today is very different from the early days of the company’s DfE efforts. Briefly examining the evolution of HP’s efforts provides insight to avoiding common pitfalls associated with implementing a successful DfE program.
The earliest product stewards were responsible for setting environmental goals such as reducing energy consumption or improving recyclability. But because product stewards were not at first integrated into the product development process, the goals they set often failed to fully address customer needs, consider competitive pressures or completely account for materials and manufacturing constraints.

Environmental goals set by early HP product stewards also varied widely from product to product—even for those in the same family, such as laser jet printers—which made it difficult to benchmark performance across an entire product line.

HP quickly recognized that its environmental design goals needed to be more technically achievable, consistent and aligned with customer expectations. Cast with this new responsibility, product stewards began to work more closely with product designers and R&D teams to evaluate customer needs and competitive features as well as technical feasibility when developing environmental design criteria. They also began to evaluate and prioritize each of the criteria through a rigorous review process that assesses environmental benefits in conjunction with their business impact, such as their cost to implement or the strength of their competitive differentiation.

Binding HP’s DfE successes together is the common principle and practice of ensuring that the environmental performance of a product is fully integrated into the product development process, addressing both technical feasibility and business goals.

Balancing Priorities with Goals

Companies must carefully weigh the pros and cons of developing and marketing a product with enhanced environmental performance; various industries are littered with green products that failed because they were perceived as being inferior in quality and performance, didn’t meet a market need or carried a higher price.

To be successful, green products have to fulfill the needs of existing customers and attract new customers by delivering increased value. Appropriately, DfE programs must be grounded on the core principle of creating products that generate customer value.

DfE programs can meet this challenge on a number of fronts. As mentioned above, a DfE program should develop new products or enhance current products that are consistent with customers’ environmental values while maintaining functionality, performance and affordability. This is a minimum requirement for any sustained DfE effort.

Second, a DfE program can enhance existing products by improving performance or adding
innovative features that also meet environmental needs. These advances can provide a competitive edge that can increase a product’s value. For example, through technology advancements and more efficient, environmental design, HP monochrome LaserJet cartridges since 1990 have increased yield by 80 percent, but use one-third fewer parts.

Third, properly communicated DfE efforts can strengthen the image of a company by uniting product invention with environmental responsibility. As environmental considerations increasingly influence purchase decisions—particularly among large corporate and governmental customers—this positioning may help strengthen customer loyalty as well as provide an opportunity to reach new customers.

Finally, DfE programs can help reduce manufacturing, packaging and shipping costs and thus make products more cost-effective to bring to market. Designing similar products to share common technologies or components, using a higher percentage of recycled materials, reducing packaging and eliminating unnecessary complexity and weight are all examples of improvements that DfE programs can generate that drive down costs and improve the bottom line.

Navigating Regulations and Standards

The deepening of companies’ commitment to environmental stewardship and adoption of DfE programs has been framed, in part, by the development of standards, regulations and specifications that govern, measure and promote the environmental performance of their products.

Regulations around environmental manufacturing processes and recycling requirements may vary between states and nations reflecting local political, legislative and economic conditions. These differences in standards can have a significant influence on DfE programs, particularly when evaluating the need, feasibility and impact of desired product improvements.

Voluntary eco-labeling standards and certification programs also differ around the world. At least 25 countries now offer eco-label programs, and most are administered by governments that evaluate and certify products based on environmental attributes specific to a particular product category. These specifications cover environmental criteria such as energy efficiency, minimized hazardous substance use and recyclability. Several eco-label programs include print cartridge criteria within the certification process, highlighting the role original cartridges play in optimal printing system performance.

Germany’s pioneering Blue Angel program covers products and services in 80 categories. Introduced in 1977, it is regarded as a pioneering effort and among the most demanding and rigorous eco-labeling programs in practice. To receive the Blue Angel label, for example, inkjet printers must consume less than two watts of electricity in their lowest power state. Similar eco-label programs exist in North America (such as the Energy Star program), Japan, Asia and Scandinavia.

There are efforts underway to align or standardize eco-labels internationally—such as by the European Ecolabel Organization and International Organization on Standards (ISO). Internationally harmonized standards are the most efficient and effective way to create transparency for consumers, promote fair competition and encourage innovation and technical progress including on the environment. More localized measures can lead to a patchwork of standards that can create complexity and add cost often with little or no additional environmental benefit.

Even with the efforts of ISO and similar organizations, there is no hard-and-fast formula for successfully managing overlapping standards and ever-evolving environmental regulations. Perhaps the most effective strategy is to dedicate the necessary resources—such as product stewards and other compliance specialists—to constantly monitor and evaluate the shifting landscape. Companies committed to a DfE program should actively participate in relevant standards organizations and anticipate new governmental regulations to avoid the costly redesign of products or restrictions to market access. For example, HP has actively contributed to efforts to help shape industry standards, such as its involvement in informing the U.S. EPA’s Energy Start eco-label guidelines in the early 1990s.
A Final Word

While integrating organizational resources to align environmental design priorities with business objectives is critical to measurable progress, perhaps the greatest factor in the sustained success of a DfE program is its flexibility. Goals must continually be evaluated and advanced to reflect shifting market and regulatory expectations of the environmental performance of new and existing products. While a company’s principle commitment to DfE initiatives may deepen, its processes and approach to implementing its commitment to the environment must evolve to address diverse demands of the global marketplace. Assigning a task force with a dedicated leader to explore how to align the relevant aspects of your business practices and environmental programs is your first step in starting your company on the right path toward a successful DfE program.

Boris Elisman is the vice president of marketing and sales for Hewlett Packard’s Imaging and Printing Supplies Organization (IPS). He is responsible for leading the IPS marketing function across regions and divisions, as well as management and execution of marketing, communication and customer insight programs. Prior to joining the Imaging and Printing Business, Elisman was the vice president and general manager of the Emerging Businesses Organization at HP. In this capacity he was responsible for leading the creation and development of new technology businesses for HP.

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