Manufacturers Are Seeing Bottom-Line Benefits Of Designing For The Environment

July 13, 2006
For many manufacturers designing for the environment is a marketing coup.

There was a time when cradle-to-grave manufacturing was the norm -- and even made good business sense. Manufacturers made products that weren't meant to last past their usefulness. The products were simply tossed to the curb and consumers would shop for another widget just like the old one.

Then came talk about the environment. People started thinking about the consequences of throwing away all those widgets. They started worrying about their carbon footprints, and they wanted widget manufacturers to do the same.

A funny thing happened on the way to environmental responsibility -- it actually helped the bottom line.

Thus was born the cradle-to-cradle and design-for-environment manufacturing mindset: Make products that easily can be recycled, reused and re-purposed.

Through the years, many manufacturers have embraced a design-for-environment mentality without much notice from consumers. For example, remember the black plastic base on two-liter soda bottles? To make the bottles easier to recycle, manufacturers did away with the unneeded component. Not only was it an environmentally friendly move, it saved manufacturers money on each bottle as well.

For many manufacturers, designing for the environment also is a marketing coup. General Electric Co.'s Ecomagination campaign, for instance, complete with a commercial featuring a twinkle-toed pachyderm dancing in the rain, aims to highlight the company's focus on a cleaner environment.

Ecomagination includes a $1.5-billion annual investment in research and development for cleaner technologies; plans to double GE revenue to $20 billion in 2010 from sales of products and services that provide big environmental advantages; and a corporate reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Last year Hewlett-Packard's recycling program took back 140 million pounds of material destined for landfills.Another manufacturer making the most of innovation is Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP). The company launched its design-for-environment program in 1992 with three priorities in mind: energy efficiency, materials innovation and design for recyclability.

HP is constantly tweaking how its products use energy and refining the materials it uses -- either trying to use fewer materials, use materials that have a lower environmental impact or use materials that make more use of renewable resources. The company's goal is to make products that can be recycled, reused or taken apart and used for something else.

"In 1992 HP started looking at the impacts of our products and said, 'As we grow as a company, and as the IT industry grows, we need to take a more focused approach to looking at the environmental impact our products are having on the environment, communities and the folks that use them,'" says John Frey, manager, corporate environmental strategies.

One of the ways to limit environmental impact is to offer a global recycling program. "Ultimately our customers are going to want to either give back those products or they are going to quit using them," says Frey.

HP's program enables customers to take any electronic product from any manufacturer to designated drop-off locations. HP will then recycle the materials and re-purpose them, or discard them in an environmentally friendly way. Last year, for instance, HP took back 140 million pounds of materials. So in addition to being environmentally responsible, HP also benefits by getting a look at the guts of competitor's products.

Frey notes that the program lets HP see how customers use products and how the materials hold up to day-to-day use.

"When you are responsible for and overseeing the recycling, you get to see your own products and other people's products at end of life and say, 'OK, had we not designed it this way or that way, it would have been easier to recycle,'" Frey observes.

True to its design-for-environment initiative, HP places environmental stewards on every design team to identify design changes that may reduce environmental impact throughout a product's lifecycle.

According to Frey, part of the challenge internally is helping the environmental stewards to articulate business value along with the environmental benefits. When there is a connection, it really impacts the bottom line.

"Our environmental stewards help product designers see that if you make a product that is easier to take apart at its end of life, it's easier to put together in the first place," says Frey. "You induce an efficiency in the process."

Frey notes that a lot has changed since HP's design-for-environment program began. Computers are going places that didn't necessarily have the power structure that more industrialized cities and countries had, and it has become a continual process to keep up with technology.

"Materials innovation is an excellent example of that," says Frey. "Five years ago a conversation with design teams about using recycled plastic in the products was a very difficult conversation. Today it's less so as recycling streams become more and more available around the world and their engineering properties become better and more well known."

Today, environmental thinking has become second nature at HP. "We no longer have debates with design teams about energy efficiency," Frey points out. "That's now an inherent part of what they do."

Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike Inc. is another contender in the design-for-the-environment arena.

The company, which began operations in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports, in 1972 introduced a new brand of athletic footwear called Nike, named for the Greek goddess of victory. Early on, founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight knew victory could be achieved by designing products that tread lightly on the earth.

In 1983 the company established the Nike Environmental Action Team (NEAT) to focus on recycling, education and innovative programs like Reuse-A-Shoe. This program, which collects millions of pairs of returned and post-consumer footwear annually, recycles shoes and turns them into new products.

The recycled material is called Nike Grind. To get the Grind, machines granulate and separate shoes into three main materials -- rubber from the outsole, foam from the midsole and fabric from the upper. The Nike Grind is used in myriad products, including synthetic football and soccer fields, basketball courts, running tracks and playground padding. Once destined for the landfill, more than 7.5 million shoes are finding new life.

Another campaign, Nike Considered, was launched last year and touts product design that delivers more from less -- less energy to make products, less waste and fewer chemicals in production.

In addition, Nike works with a sustainable-design consultant to ensure its products aren't harmful to people or the environment. According to the company, the cradle- to-cradle approach allows Nike customers to know their products are returning to natural cycles safely or to industrial cycles perpetually.

Ford Motor Co. enlisted Kermit The Frog to tout its eco-friendly vision.Also on the road to environmentally sound practices, Ford Motor Co. has employed Kermit The Frog to sing "It's Not Easy Being Green" to tout its line of Flexible Fuel Vehicles. The vehicles run on E85 ethanol, a renewable fuel made from 85% corn or other starch feedstock and 15% gasoline.

Ford, along with DaimlerChrysler and General Motors, recently announced plans to double annual production of vehicles capable of running on renewable fuels to 2 million cars and trucks by 2010.

In addition to designing vehicles that are more environmentally sound, Ford also employs earth-friendly practices at its manufacturing plants. Speaking at IndustryWeek's Best Plants conference in May 2006, David T. Szczupak, vice president of manufacturing, The Americas, noted that Ford's eco-vision goes all the way to the top.

Indeed, Ford planted grass on its rooftop at the Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich., to insulate the building in the winter and collect rainwater for recycling in the summer. Szczupak also noted that the company uses porous paving that filters water through retention beds with two to three feet of compacted stones, helping manage storm-water runoff.

"Today and tomorrow we are going to compete to win," said Szczupak. "Our manufacturing plants enable us to make the most of innovation and offer a more environmentally friendly future."

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