There are some heroes in the sustainable tech market. Fairphone is often the first brand that comes to mind, and for good reason. However their ambitious approach to take control of their entire supply chain isn’t realistic for every tech brand, at least not from the beginning. So what can you do to make a difference? I sat down with the industrial design team at Morrama to get their thoughts.
Morrama is a product design consultancy that works with forward thinking brands to bring meaningful products to market. To us, that word ‘meaningful’ means that the products have a reason to exist in the world that is worth more than the impact they will inevitably have on the planet. In order to consider environmental impact, we break it down into three areas: product, service and business. On a typical project we will put together a sustainable design report unique to that brand. However, some advice comes up time and time again. So we’ve decided to share it. In this article we will discuss the product itself.
Just to establish some foundations; at Morrama, when it comes to electronics, our focus is almost always on maximising the useful life.
Plastic has a bad rap, but for weight, moldability, safety and IP ratings, it’s commonplace in tech products. Of course there are options to use recycled plastic (typically post-industrial recycled (PIR) content) however be cautious not to compromise the durability of the assembly. With plastic parts, consider the finish. A surprising number of plastic products on the market have all sorts of post-production such as sand-blasting, painting or soft-touch TPE. It’s very easy to be romanced by the silky smooth finish of soft-touch but you don’t have to look far to find the truth about what happens to it over time. Increase draft angles on plastic parts to maximise your choice of textures and always think about how something will look over time. Will that perfect matte finish look good with wear and tear?
Tech products can very quickly become complex assemblies. I mean, just look at a typical PCB. Even knowing where the components have come from, let alone getting LCA data for each resistor, transformer or microchip is difficult at best. Whilst this might be out of your control, you might consider looking for second hand components.
Next, let’s talk batteries. It’s easy to jump to rechargeable lithium batteries. But sealing these into a product means that when they inevitably lose charge the entire product becomes obsolete. Whilst the idea of using AA batteries doesn’t appeal to anyone, what about rechargeable ones? Could you use sodium ion batteries? Whilst they might not be as efficient or lightweight, they don’t come with the environmental damage and huge water usage of lithium.
Apple demonstrated how CO2e emissions can be reduced by switching to manufacturing using green energy. So it’s worth looking for options before you start production or consider what a switch might entail. At the very least - start putting some pressure on your supplier to consider a full or partial switch to renewables.
When it comes to assembly, are you aware of how many products are not making it out the factory door? Reduce failure rates and you will reduce waste. Pick a durable finish on casings. Design poka yokes into a product to simplify and speed up assembly. Go glueless and lose the snap fits so products can be taken apart and repaired if a fault is identified. And carry out as much testing as you can justify before the product leaves the factory. Ensuring products can be assembled quickly and without failure is the easiest way to reduce the impact at this stage.
Tech products require power. This might be direct or battery powered, but either way, they rely on electricity. The challenge here is to reduce the amount as much as possible. Where batteries are used, stay away from wireless charging where up to 50% more energy is needed to charge a product over direct wired charging. Consider ways the product could be more efficient by removing functionality that isn’t vital e.g. heating water in a kettle to 100 degrees when 80 degrees is enough. And going back to batteries, if these can be replaced with new ones, this ensures capacity remains high and resistance (and therefore energy loss) is low.
We’re an industrial design agency; we couldn’t write an article without highlighting the importance of the product design. Why have we included it here and not at the top of the article, well to be honest, it could go anywhere. What happens at each part of the life-cycle is affected by, and in some way dictated by, the design. The question is how can we design for longevity? Firstly, think about futureproofing. Is there additional functionality that you can ‘switch on’ with an update later on? What about aesthetics, how can you transcend trends and design something that has a timeless aesthetic and won’t feel dated in a few years? And most importantly - how do you design products that people love. Love so much that they want to keep them as long as possible?
7. End-of-life… not quite
Following circular economy principles, the first goal after use is reuse. Providing a repair service, selling spare parts online for at-home fixes, or partnering with local repair shops are all good ways of keeping a user's device in working order. Factoring this into the design of the product from the beginning makes these steps much easier when it comes to it. Obviously, there are some safety considerations to letting customers run wild with the insides of your products, so you may need to use tamper-proof screws to discourage the average consumer and leave the heavy lifting to the experts. Safety first.
8. Eventual end-of-life
This life-cycle stage is the most difficult to control as your customer may use your product for years before looking to dispose of it. At this point, the customer won’t instinctively turn to you to take it back and many brands do not have the infrastructure to deal with old devices, particularly if you have gone on to sell a newer model. Nevertheless, by taking back responsibility, you then regain control of the life-cycle and can substantiate any circular claims.
At this point you can refurbish the machines and sell them back to customers. Either under your own brand, like companies such as Melitta do, or through a third party such as Backmarket. If the machine is past the point of repair, having designed it so that it can be disassembled, means components can be recaptured and redeployed by either selling them back into the market or feeding them into your own supply chain.
Lastly, you have the materials that cannot be reused or redeployed. These should be recycled where possible and only as a very last option, should be safely disposed of.
We’ve only scratched the surface here. But one thing is clear. It’s no longer an option to produce planet conscious products, it’s a must, and whilst it can feel simultaneously an uphill struggle and a rabbit hole, it’s important to bring it back to the age-old adage: reduce, reuse and recycle. If you ever have trouble remembering that, just listen to this.
Stay tuned for the next article in this mini-series where the Morrama team shares more on how rethinking product as service can have a positive impact on the planet.
If you'd like to discuss how you might implement some of these ideas and more into your product, get in touch: email@example.com