Sustainable Consumption Part II: Everyone Wants a Label

by | Feb 16, 2011

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Last time we started to introduce the issues around sustainable consumption – from a manufacturing perspective. I know this sounds a bit strange, consumption from a production viewpoint, but the idea was motivated by the need to reduce the demand for unnecessary products (or, at least, to minimize the waste created by their consumption) and how manufacturing might play a role in this.

In the impact equation (also called IPAT) the demand is driven by population and consumption per unit of population (usually referred to as GDP/capita). It is this piece that, if reduced, would have a big effect on the overall societal impact on the environment – make consumption more sustainable (or, at least, less impactful).

Previously we discussed how manufacturing helps with the Impact/GDP piece of the impact equation – meaning, manufacturing provides the wherewithal to reduce that piece.

It is not a simple task – but ideas are emerging.

A recent International Herald Tribune article had a page of coverage about the World Economic Forum at Davos and talked about wind energy company Vesta and the wind energy association introducing a special label for products made with wind energy. The label is being promoted by a consortium of international organizations and companies interested in promoting the use of clean energy and they’ve come up with a symbol, consisting of three blue “swooshes” around the word “WindMade,” as their way of promoting products made with clean energy.

Companies are seeing a slow down in the movement towards reducing climate change due to the economic downturn, new political realities and questioning about the urgency. So, some groups and companies are picking up the torch themselves.

The idea is that if the consumer sees that the product was made with renewable energy they are more likely to purchase it – it aligns with their personal commitments to sustainability, etc.

Never mind that in the last posting I quoted the study by Enviromedia about the current 350 different labels that already confuse the consumer.

But this one, wind energy produced, has the potential to take root. The promoters also indicated there could be labels for other sorts of energy sources for producing the product as well, hydro, bio-fuel, solar, compost methane, etc.

The question is, to rephrase the comment from Professor Lanza in the last posting, do we want to encourage people to buy products they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like and that are made with energy that is better used somewhere else (or not at all)?

This is the quandary … if you have a renewable source of energy should you be able to “waste it” and still claim to be advancing the cause?

Now, certainly, all the products made with renewable energy are not wasteful and unnecessary – not by a long shot. But it is the mentality that is potentially problematic.

So, how about a label for products made with “green manufacturing” technology (hopefully powered by renewable energy)? Why can’t we have a label to represent products that are made with the minimum expenditure of resources (materials, water, other consumables), energy and with benign or, better, positive social impact to the folks making the products? And produced on systems that optimize both production efficiency and energy and resource utilization as discussed in the last posting.

I don’t have a specific proposed label here. But we could call it “GreenMade” perhaps.

And what about product design? It is often stated that design is 20%  of the product development cycle but fixes 80% of the cost (see, for example, the article by David Anderson for a reasonable summary of this). The implication is that decisions made early in the concept and design phase for a product will dictate features/requirements that will control 80% of the lifetime product cost. The logic then follows then that it is difficult, if not impossible, for manufacturing to reduce costs since “design determines manufacturability” thus locking in costs.

But this does not necessarily translate to fixing 80% of the energy consumption (or other material/resource consumption). Let me explain.

Manufacturing processes differ in terms of their abilities, and efficiencies, to create functional products or components from raw materials. That is, transforming materials from one form to another – the definition of manufacturing – can be done in many ways. Even for the same design.

Further, the energy a product uses may depend a lot, or only minimally, on design decisions. For example, a designer may pick components for use in the product – say an electronic device -that individually consume a lot, or little, energy and together make the product function. That would count for a design driven energy product profile. Choosing correctly at the design phase would reduce product lifecycle impact.

But, there are many situations where this link doesn’t work.

Going back to our “leveraging” discussion some postings ago we saw some examples of manufacturing enabling a design (which was not specifically dictating a process chain to produce the component) that had a tremendous effect on reducing the lifetime consumption, and impact, of the product. In that case the example was an automotive engine.

So, I think we can “decouple” design from manufacturing in many cases in term of energy or resource impact over product lifecycle and consider manufacturing an “independent” variable when it comes to determining life time product impact.

How we do that is a subject for additional discussion – I’ll continue this next time.

David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog.

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