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Upping the Ante in Design for Sustainability!

Industrialisation is linked to climate change but at the same time has empowered us to improve and extend our lives. Can we counter the consumerism that we see today while expanding access to the benefits, such as rewarding careers, leisure and socialising, high standards of healthcare and housing? And how can engineers contribute, through product design, in pursuit of sustainability?

A Brief History of Environmental Awareness   

Concerns about the environmental damage caused by industrialisation have abounded since the beginning of industrialisation. In recent decades there have been numerous high-profile scandals about industrial pollution. Some have been caused by poor practices and inadequate legislation, others by industrial actors “cutting corners” where the profit motive clashes with correct procedures. Events such as the Union Carbide battery factory disaster in Bhopal, India, combined fears about chemical pollution with concerns over companies’ commitment to industrial safety, particularly in offshore locations: typically, poorer countries where minimum standards regarding worker safety and welfare have historically been lower than in the developed world.

Among key concerns in the 1980s and ‘90s, acid rain - caused when compounds like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides combine with water in the atmosphere - threatens the health of crops, plant and animal life, lakes, and rivers. Problems like these can be difficult to deal with; a huge quantity of data needs to be collected and analysed to identify the issue, assess the extent of the problem, identify the causes, and design and implement practicable solutions. And then comes the task of securing compliance, which is made harder by the fact that those identified as causing the problem are usually required to make some investment in new, cleaner equipment and processes.

Well, these challenges are scaled up to the global level as we attribute changes in the environment, weather patterns, animal populations, sea levels, and ecosystem failures such as sea-coral recession, to the effects of global warming. It has taken a huge variety of environmental studies and several generations of data gathering, analysis, hypotheses, arguments, and modelling, to present persuasive proof of the causes and effects, predict likely outcomes, and gain commitment from individuals, business, and governments around the world to support accords such as the 2015 Paris Agreement on global warming and more recent pledges from the November 2021 COP26 meeting.

The problem has been recognised – though perhaps not universally accepted – and efforts have been ongoing for some time now to reduce pollution (The Historical Archive notes the creation of the first air-pollution control device, the Cinder Catcher, in 1913) and also to reduce energy demand as problems with traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels have become recognised: their contribution to global warming and also their finite nature. In the electronics business, recent initiatives have included the transition to lead-free solder, the EU’s RoHS and WEEE directives, and energy legislation and codes of conduct like EU’s ErP, US Energy Star, appliance energy labelling schemes, and ecodesign rules applying to products like external power adapters and chargers for electrical equipment.

All this has been going on for some time now and is continuing to ramp up. And yet the sense of urgency is intensifying as global temperature rise seems as difficult to curb as ever.

Is Consumerism to Blame?


We never used to be a throwaway society. In previous generations, people owned less and would make do and mend. It’s unlikely that human nature has changed significantly; arguably the desire to own more has been tempered by a lack of availability. More recently, as equipment like televisions and white goods have become more affordable, they have become essential to modern living.

The electronics industry has unleashed a never-ending torrent of new inventions to make consumers’ lives more productive, comfortable, entertaining: personal computers, mobiles, smartphones, game consoles, and many others have created huge global markets for tech. Electronic technologies, and semiconductors, in particular, have been a key – although not sole - enabler: developments in plastics and associated moulding processes in the second half of the 20th century, for example, certainly helped improve the quality and appearance of many products as well as easing manufacturability and lowering costs to fit consumers’ pockets.

That period has seen a boom in consumerism that has accelerated in the 21st century. In the early 1970s, an average home may have contained one television, a washing machine, refrigerator, a record player, or hi-fi. Compare that with today and note that many modern appliances and gadgets are simply discarded if there is a fault. Some may call a repair service if an appliance fails; others will more likely hit the Internet.

The latest generation of any product is typically more stylish and functional than the current, there are almost infinite new choices, and price competition assures affordability. The new model also comes with a fresh guarantee. Compounding this, the brands behind the products are under pressure to keep selling to grow their business, gain market share, and satisfy their shareholders. Corporate survival (and the dependent jobs and pensions) requires releasing the next generation quickly, on time and, ideally, before the competition. Perfect conditions for rampant consumerism to take hold.

What’s more, sustainability is not a strong suit of many consumer-electronic products. Smartphones, as a prime example, are designed for a relatively short replacement interval and reclaiming or recycling materials is difficult. According to Energy Industry Review, there is 100 times more gold in one ton of mobile phones than in a ton of ore from which gold is extracted.

Moreover, while semiconductor manufacturers continue their mission to cut the power consumption of each chip to the minimum, as well as implementing flexible power-management modes for designers to exploit at the application level, user demands for more and more features and faster response places upward pressure on overall power consumption.

What are the Alternatives?

Concerns about consumerism and its effects on the environment (and on poorer societies and the human condition in general) have encouraged discussion and new thinking that challenge consumerist views on life, commerce, and our measures of success.

One notion is the circular economy: where the waste from one process provides the input material to another, ultimately minimising the burden of activities such as landfill as well as demand for virgin materials with their associated extraction and production processes.

circular economy

The circular economy has government-level commitment, such as the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan and related European Green Deal.

Buy Better Buy Less is another suggestion, coming from the fashion industry although the principle has value across multiple industries and markets, including consumer and industrial electronics. A Canadian journalist has recommended the way to buy better clothes is not to spend more money but to spend more time – “researching makers and fabrics, learning how to identify quality, and then searching it out.” Creative electronics brands can appeal to this dynamic, by designing products to last and explaining their principles to the market.

The pandemic also appears to have influenced consumer opinion on purchases. A survey by McKinsey among UK and German shoppers found that a large percentage now place more importance on reducing their impact on climate change and are ready to change their shopping behaviour to do so.

Design for Sustainability

sustainable design

With responsibility for the design of products from the ground up, including the materials and parts selected, as well as product performance such as power consumption and efficiency, engineers have an opportunity to tackle sustainability issues at source.

Design decisions can adopt the values of the circular economy. This includes aspects such as the choice of materials and their sources, and even the properties of specific parts. It may be possible, for example, to replace a component directly with one made from reclaimed material. One example is glass foam, an acoustic tiling material that could replace traditional acoustic materials such as polyurethane foams. It is made from a combination of recycled consumer glass and reclaimed eggshells from bakeries and restaurants and can be produced close to where these materials are sourced.

Glass foam made from recycled and reclaimed materials can replace traditional acoustic tiles.

(Trend Monitor: Environmental Trend: 5 New Materials Made From Food Waste - Trend-Monitor)

Here is another perspective on the selection of materials, given by the author William Gibson in his novel Idoru, from the mid-90s: “… he hated the way consumer electronics were made, a couple of little chips and boards inside these plastic shells. The shells were just point-of-purchase eye-candy, he said, made to wind up in the landfill if nobody recycled it, and usually, nobody did. [he used to] put the real parts into cases he’d make in his shop. Say he’d make a solid bronze case for a minidisc unit, ebony inlays, carve the control surfaces out of fossil ivory, turquoise, rock crystal.”

“And once you had the case, when the manufacturer brought out a new model, well, if the electronics were any better, you just pulled the old ones out and put the new ones in your case. So you still had the same object, just with better functions.

An idea ahead of its time, but could this be an elegant way to curb consumer-electronics waste?

Activist Engineers

activist engineering

It’s not true to say that nothing is being done about climate change. Plentiful legislation and codes of conduct seek to influence aspects of the product lifecycle from ecodesign to end of life. Compliance may be mandatory or voluntary, and there is often clear supporting evidence that describes the benefits to the environment. But it’s reactive, and legislation is known to be behind where it should be if global environmental targets are to be met.

Designing to combat climate change may demand a call to activist engineering that takes matters into our own hands, to go further in minimising the use of the world’s resources and energy both to put the products onto store-shelves and to power them throughout their lifetime, as well as minimise or ideally eliminate the burden they represent after end of life.

But it’s risky. There will be scant reward for designers who create products that fail to meet prevailing commercial targets. On the other hand, consumer attitudes may be changing in favour of greater sustainability, and niche opportunities for thoughtfully engineered products could start to become mainstream. However, changing the way corporate performance is measured and rewarded is a different challenge that could take generations to bring about.

Activist Engineering – Engineering for a better world

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