Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Going Green

A Boston-based company that manufactures plastic gift, loyalty, membership, and other cards, Arther Blank & Co. had an interesting little article in the latest issue of Mass High Tech. They have been making their cards using recycled materials for a few years, integrating old, ground up credit, debit and other cards into their products. The author, Eric Blank, an Executive VP at the company, quoted a statistic from a report issued in 2005 by the US Small Business Administration; 65% of the environmental regulatory costs were shouldered by businesses in 2004. Companies paid an average of $4,850 per employee.

Regulations affect many aspects of business, from proper disposal of hazardous waste to proper internal handling of hazardous substances and employee safety regulations. Why not design products from the ground up that will eliminate the hazardous substances in the first place? This is what the author is suggesting. As compliance costs rise, designing toxic materials completely out of products make solid business sense. If the hazardous materials are removed from the outset, there are no issues to worry about, reducing risks substantially.

I remember hearing Ed Costa of HP speak about this at the Harvard Business School last year. He commented that businesses operate in a "compliance" mindset when it comes to environmental performance. Companies do the minimum to comply with existing laws and regulations. That's what they think is expected of them. The next step is a forward-thinking mindset recognizing that hazardous materials should be avoided at the outset, removing them and their associated costs from the product completely.

How is this done? Design groups must constantly be researching and looking for ways to remove toxic substances from products and avoiding their use in new products. Surely there are tremendous knowledge gaps in designer practice. A tool kit of design conventions that worked 20 years go may not be applicable in today's world. Therefore, organizations must be proactive in seeking out information on new, better, and benign materials and technologies, staying ahead of the regulatory curve.
Engineering and design institutions of higher learning should be part of this conversation. Sustainable design principles and parctices must be embedded in engineering curricula. Why not have students that are learning about design and material choices learn about their environmental and regulatory costs? We have the unique opportunity to implant a bit of systems thinking in the engineers and designers that will shape our world for the next 100 years.

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