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Green Design: A Fad, or a Real Business Opportunity?

I remember a few years ago when the “go green” bug bit many electronics companies, and all sorts of save-the-Earth buzzwords were trending. Everyone was talking about sustainability, eco-friendly production, carbon footprint-tracking, and, yes, greener component and device design.

Even though I had hoped that the industry would own up to some of these environmental initiatives (who doesn't want to save the planet?), I frequently dismissed the corporate do-good promises. It costs manufacturers a lot of upfront money to take a long-term, socially conscious, tree-hugging stand. I wasn't convinced executives — after evaluating financial go-green-or-go-partially-green-or-don't-go-green trade-offs — would choose the greater good route.

Fast-forward to 2012, and I have to say I'm not 100 percent certain about the status of designing for green programs. Has the concept advanced so much that it has become an embedded, must-have capability to win new electronics business? Does going green no longer require any sort of public convincing via press releases or Web content acknowledging that companies actually provide this service and do this work? Or have green initiatives silently been moved to an industry-wide backburner, seen as a less important fad to latch onto? Powering through some online searches, very little recent news pops up for the electronics sector on this topic, giving me reason to believe that the latter of the options are true.

There are snippets about the Green Electronics Council being formed in 2005 to “support the effective design, manufacture, use and recovery of electronic products to contribute to a healthy, fair and prosperous world.” But the last news item posted on the site was in 2009.

In 2004, {complink 5703|Texas Instruments Inc.} “embarked on an ambitious project to build the world's first 'green' Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified semiconductor manufacturing facility in an effort to reduce construction and operating costs and the company's impact on the environment.” While it was a noble effort mirroring what many companies globally were doing at the time — making their fabs more environmentally-friendly, energy-efficient, and sustainable, resource-wise — there was not a lot mentioned of the actual design of green products.

Of course, environmental regulations like RoHS, WEEE, and other international legislation restricting hazardous materials and imposing recycle/take-back programs have forced many organizations to go back to the drawing board and address these issues from a design perspective — or, at the very least, create documents and databases explaining a product's footprint in greater detail.

And there was what seems to be a short-lived Greener Gadget Design Competition that was aimed at “generating outstanding design innovations for greener electronics,” but news about this appears to have trailed off since 2010.

Similarly, the organization Greener Gadgets, which is owned and copyrighted by the Consumer Electronics Association, does a good job of advising consumers about how much electricity their devices consume, recycling products, and buying green. But it is consumer-focused and targets the post-production crowd.

There is astonishingly little information out there about what companies are doing today when it comes to designing products in a sustainable, green way. I'm going to assume that I just missed something, or that it's become so commonplace that no one needs to talk about it anymore. But I can't shake the feeling that companies have cast aside these important considerations and are still focused on building green buildings or struggling through making sense of global environmental-compliance regulations.

I sincerely hope to be proven wrong.

16 comments on “Green Design: A Fad, or a Real Business Opportunity?

  1. _hm
    August 29, 2012

    It is good design check point and most designer put their best effort for this. However, cost is another aspect and this may make it gradual transition.

     

  2. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 30, 2012

    While targeting for the green designs the companies have to take into account the energy consumed in the total process not just the energy consumed by the product .

    Many times there is a direct saving in the energy at the expense of indirect huge energy overhead.

    For example wind energy is green but the enrgy spent in producing the machinery for wind mill ( most of which is steel) is tremendous.

    “Does the product is net net green throughout its product life cycle? ” is the questin must must ask.

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 30, 2012

    I tend to view this as a fad, but it might just be for the reasons you pointed out: there is still a moving target in regard to green. I'd love to see data on green design: I hope readers will point to some sources and examples and we'll continue to seek new sources. I know they are out there somewhere

  4. syedzunair
    August 30, 2012

    prabhakar: 

    That is a very good question. 'The ends justify the means' may not apply in this case. Like you said, I am also in the favor of the bigger picture instead of going green on one product. The entire picture should be viewed in terms of the green concept and if there are significant long term benefits that outweigh the short term expenditure in terms of energy for development then I guess we are okay. 

  5. Anna Young
    August 30, 2012

    @ Barbara and Jennifer I share your views on green design. I have not come across any data to back up its sustainability.

  6. ahdand
    August 31, 2012

    I also feel its a FAD and certain factors are not possible enough

  7. Himanshugupta
    August 31, 2012

    looking at other industries such as transportation, energy, housing etc. the green initiative has not fly off either. I guess the main reasons are immature green technology, limited feasibility, expensive to implement or maintain, not enought private initiatives etc. I think the usual attitude towards a new technology is rather pessimistic especially when the current technologies are proving sufficient. So, the real business opportunity is yet to come by.

  8. Anand
    September 3, 2012

    There is astonishingly little information out there about what companies are doing today when it comes to designing products in a sustainable, green way.

    @Jennifer, I agree with your observation. I think the 2008 slowdown has hit the industry so hard that most of the companies are more focused on maintaining their margins rather than worry about creating eco friendly products. 

  9. Anand
    September 3, 2012

    For example wind energy is green but the enrgy spent in producing the machinery for wind mill ( most of which is steel) is tremendous.

    @Prabhakar, I am not sure if this is the right way to approach this problem. Producing wind-mill equipments is one time effort. But once created they generate energy for next couple of years. All we can do is take steps to make the steel manufacturing plant eco friendly.

  10. Jennifer Baljko
    September 3, 2012

    _hm- 

    However, cost is another aspect and this may make it gradual transition.”

    Right, but gradual means what five years or 50 years? I would have expected by now to see more traction in this, but maybe I'm living in Twitter-time with my “everything now” expectations…

     

  11. Jennifer Baljko
    September 3, 2012

    prabhakar – that's a good point, and a good question. I wonder how many companies calculate if a product is green all the way through its lifecycle, from source to end of life. 

  12. Jennifer Baljko
    September 3, 2012

    syedzunair, prabhakar – thinking out loud and adding to my last point… Yes, it makes sense to look at the big picture and not how green one product line may be. But, I wonder how many companies are using that as a cop out for not creating more green design solutions that would move towards an eventual total-green lifecycle.

  13. Jennifer Baljko
    September 3, 2012

    Anna, Barbara – It's odd that's thee's no research out there, isn't it? For industry that made so much noise about it just a few years ago when it was a buzzword.

  14. Jennifer Baljko
    September 3, 2012

    himanshugupta – let's hope we see the day when this becomes real business oopportunities. I think there are merits in it if the great minds of environmental science can figure how to make green technology more cost-effective to win corporate buy in.

  15. Jennifer Baljko
    September 3, 2012

    anandvy – you're probably right about the impact of the 2008 downturn. Businesses are mostly keeping their head down. Can't help but think, though, that companies may be missing some opportunities to take advantage of the downturn and innovate in this area.

  16. _hm
    September 4, 2012

    Yes, it will be little slower and may take between one to two decades. It is difficult for business to change for so fast except there is money in it.

     

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