Sustainability and Consumer Goods: Why the Product Development Approach Makes the Difference
Today for a business, sustainability does not only mean looking greener. More and more companies now have clear sustainability goals such as science-based targets and develop their sustainability strategy based on the 17 United Nations Development Goals (see Fig. 2) and the Paris Climate Agreement. And these commitments and plans do not come alone, they are followed by significant investments. What is particularly remarkable is that despite the worldwide corona virus crisis the enthusiasm of all industries for sustainability has not lost the momentum it gained in 2019. Moreover, many leaders and policy makers even see the shift towards sustainability as an opportunity for our economies to recover from the pandemic.
Figure 1: Circular economy and sustainable system development
An approach that is today widely recognized to tackle the sustainability challenge is the concept of circular economy. It is particularly relevant in different industries of the consumer goods sector, such as the food & beverage, consumer electronics, home appliance, mobile phone, and personal care industries. The goods in these industries have a relatively short lifetime, going from a few days (or even less) to a few years. The lifetime model usually includes production, distribution, use/consumption, and disposal as waste; this is the linear model (see Fig 1). The concept of circular economy is to go from this linear model to a circular model, where the resources used for a good are either recovered, recycled, reused, or even reduced as much as possible. Two good examples of “reduce” approaches are the energy concept for a hospital and health care area (Lengg/Zurich) and the Energy Vault’s innovative energy storage, which both enable significant reductions in the consumption of non-renewable resources. The innovative toilet concept that Helbling is currently developing for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is another example of a “reuse” strategy. In this toilet concept the flushing water is continuously filtrated and reused to avoid consuming any fresh water and to operate without any sewage infrastructure. Finally, a project for Bombardier Transportation on a thermoelectric generator (TEG) for a diesel-electric locomotive illustrates a “recover” approach, where the heat energy from the diesel motor exhaust is recovered into electric energy that can be further used.
In principle, the “lower” we go into the Circular Economy loops – from recover to reduce (see Fig 1) – the more resources used in the goods lifetime can be saved. For product development it is absolutely key to integrate the concept of circular economy as early as possible into the product development process, ideally already at the ideation phase because any choice at this early stage will impact the subsequent phases. And indeed, it is well-known that at the very beginning of the project, in the ideation or concept phases, there are much more opportunities to influence the design of the final product than at the industrialization phase.
Figure 2: The United Nation’s sustainable development goals (https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/)
When talking about environmental sustainability in a business context, two dimensions have to be taken into account. The first one is the actual environmental friendliness and the second one is the consumer perception of environmental friendliness (see Fig. 3). The first one is rational and the second one is emotional. Effective sustainable solutions from a business perspective are those in the upper right area: they are environmentally friendly and are also perceived as such. It is very risky for a firm to go in the upper left area of the plot, a solution that looks sustainable, but that is not in reality (more) environmentally friendly. This can be interpreted as green washing and can sooner or later damage the company’s image.
Figure 3: The two dimensions of sustainability for consumer goods and sustainable product design from ideation to industrialization.
At Helbling, during the ideation phase (very beginning of the project), we generate ideas belonging to the upper area of the plot (the emotional component). This requires above all creativity and imagination, and a good understanding of the end user. We then transform those ideas into real products through the concept, development, and industrialization phases. For this, we use a scientific approach and strong engineering skills (for example in reliability assessment, life cycle assessment, energy system modeling, or cost assessment) to make sure that at every step we converge towards an optimal sustainable solution. In addition, in each phase, we make sure that the designed product is technically feasible, economically viable, and attractive to consumers.
Sustainability is a main topic in the strategic development of Helbling’s future service offering, as illustrated in the Company Portrait and Business Year 2019.
Author: Jonathan Demierre