Going Green Starts with Design

by | Dec 17, 2008

What comes to mind when you think of environmentally-friendly consumer electronics products? Maybe it’s a solar charger, or a hand-cranked portable radio. Personally, I think of notebook computers, wireless phones, and televisions. If those don’t sound much different than your usual consumer electronics products, that’s because they’re not.

There is a plethora of research these days demonstrating that consumers and businesses are increasingly looking for ways to “green” their daily routines and business practices – not just out of responsibility to the environment, but also with an eye toward the bottom line. Certainly consumer awareness and behavioral changes at the grassroots level can reduce energy consumption and needless waste. However, when these actions are implemented in conjunction with innovative engineering and design solutions from manufacturers, the environmental achievements are amplified.

Of course, there are major benefits to using less energy and producing less waste but knowing the advantages of going green isn’t always enough to push people out of their comfort zones and change habits. Bearing this in mind, CE designers and manufacturers have an important role to innovate products that do the work for us, using less power while allowing consumers to maintain a familiar day-to-day lifestyle and ease into new energy usage habits.

The first step to reducing energy consumption is for manufacturers to analyze and understand what’s behind current usage rates. According to the Energy Information Association (EIA), the United States is the largest consumer of electricity in the world – and is projected to hold that title through 2030.  As a nation, there is no doubt that we need to begin to change our energy consumption habits.  Manufacturers should use Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) tools to measure a product’s energy consumption over its lifetime – factoring in such things as production requirements, consumers’ usage patterns with the device and the amount of energy required to recycle the product.

Once the analysis is complete, product designers have useful information to help them build more advanced products that employ fewer raw materials, streamlined manufacturing and delivery methods, lower power requirements and components that minimize energy usage.  According to CEA’s recently released Environmental Sustainability and Innovation in the Consumer Electronics Industry report, Panasonic has used this LCA method to find ways to cut power consumption in its plasma televisions by 96 percent over the past eight years.

In the actual design phase, engineers can further help customers by incorporating energy-saving features into their systems that will automatically limit the product’s power intake.  Energy saving modes, including sleep and standby, are a proven way to minimize consumption during non-use and essentially do the heavy lifting for the consumer.  Furthermore, by considering a product’s true energy requirements a designer can avoid calling for more power than is actually needed, thereby eliminating unnecessary electricity usage and costs.  A product’s power requirements while the product is switched on can also be innately limited by opting for lower power components as opposed to those traditionally used.

Energy efficient designs are not the only improvements that can be made to shrink a product’s ecological footprint. CE innovators are known for miniaturization, making gadgets that are not only pocket-friendly but that also use less energy and produce less waste due to their small size.  Taking it a step further, multi-functional smart phones and other gadgets that have multiple uses not only reduce the amount of waste produced, but also require fewer raw materials and less energy to build.

Many manufacturers also employ the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for Environment (DfE) recommendations.  By following the DfE guidelines, companies like Hewlett Packard develop products that optimize non-hazardous and recyclable materials.  Even small changes make a difference when you consider volume. For example, using non-hazardous connectors, such as screws, as opposed to glue can hold components together without drastically changing the manufacturing process.  Not only do DfE guidelines lessen the ecological impact of a product on the environment, they also help reduce costs associated with materials and disposal of hazardous waste.  By following these guidelines, companies can make a significant impact on environmental sustainability.  In 2006, Nokia worked with DfE engineers to remove 225 substances from its products.

By instituting eco-friendly design practices, manufacturers can lead the charge on reducing wasteful energy use and limiting harmful e-waste, which simply makes for better business.  Consumer demand for greener products that are easy to incorporate into their lives will continue to grow and businesses as well as consumers will continue to make greener choices based on the financial impact. And, in light of the incoming presidential administration’s focus on environmental issues, we can expect this trend to continue. The companies that are going green, and more importantly helping their customers go green, will be among the most respected and best positioned in the market as the country becomes more and more environmentally focused.

Parker Brugge is the Vice President of Environment Affairs & Industry Sustainability at the Consumer Electronics Association.  For more information on how to green your design practices please visit ce.org/green.  For more information on how consumers can reduce their ecological footprint, please visit http://www.MyGreenElectronics.org.

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