Building a Path to Sustainable Products

product-shelfby Kelly Flores

Making your products “sustainable” is no easy task. There are a variety of issues for product managers, designers, and engineers to consider about design, materials, packaging and transportation. In a recent study of best practices, we found that companies approach the challenge of creating sustainable products in several stages.


Looking at product packaging is often the first step. Like dipping a toe in the sustainability waters, revised packaging can provide a relatively quick return on investment. For most products, packaging has been designed for aesthetic appeal and transport, with little attention to materials used or the volume taken up in shipment.

Recently, Wal-Mart challenged its suppliers to do better.  As a result, HP responded with the Pavilion dv6929 PC laptop. The product is now bulk shipped, three in a box, with the laptop and accessories preloaded into a padded messenger bag. The difference is dramatic—a 97% reduction in packaging and a 25% savings in transportation costs.


Next, companies often assess product materials by reviewing their supply chain to find sustainable materials. As an example, label maker Avery Dennison works with suppliers to ensure they obtain materials from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified sources. The FSC certifies firms that practice sustainable forestry.

In addition, companies also look for more sustainable alternatives.  PC maker Dell is adding 10% post-consumer plastic to its OptiPlex PC casing, while Herman Miller offers steel storage systems constructed from 60% recycled materials.

Product Life Cycle Assesment (LCA)

More experienced firms are using Life Cycle Assessment to create formal reviews of the environmental impact of their products. These profiles provide an end-to-end view of both the manufacturer’s energy consumption in making the product and its usage and disposal by the customer.

An internal review of Alcatel-Lucent’s products revealed it was possible to improve the efficiency of legacy products through a software patch. The company has been working with its customers to identify installed products (some as many as 10-years-old) and help them deploy the patch.

In the high-tech industry, many companies are shipping their PCs with energy efficiency settings enabled by default, to minimize the energy impact from the first day of customer use.

Dell assessed the end-of-life impacts of its products and created a world-wide take-back program to reuse or recycle any Dell computer. Competitors’ computers can also be recycled for free when buying a Dell replacement.

Sustainability in New Products through Design for Environment

For new products, leading companies are implementing a process called “Design for Environment” to reduce the overall impact.  This process addresses opportunities for energy efficiency and sustainable materials during the design phase of product development.

It is estimated that up to 75% of a product’s environmental footprint is set at the conceptual stage.  Intel, for example, is designing products where unused components on a system board are turned-off to conserve energy. The change is transparent to the user but over millions of units, the environmental impact can be significant.


Creating sustainable products can take both time and investment. But the companies we highlighted have already begun to reap significant benefits by reviewing packaging, evaluating materials, implementing life cycle analysis, and applying “Design for Environment” principles.

While these changes can be challenging, raising the awareness of product managers, product designers, and engineers about steps to developing sustainable products can create lasting benefits for both your company and the environment.

About the Author

Kelly Flores is a Senior Consultant with Kanal Consulting, a boutique management consultancy based in San Francisco that provides business strategy, marketing, and sustainability services.  Kanal Consulting has worked with dozens of corporations on improving their sustainability efforts. She can be reached at

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