Sustainable products – the key criteria that matter

Sustainable products – the key criteria that matter

Alexander Kuchenbecker

For consumer goods manufacturers, sustainability is becoming more and more important. A few years ago few consumers really cared about sustainability, but, particularly in the wake of the 2019 school climate strikes, that has now changed.

Insight in brief

  • Sustainability is becoming more and more important - also in the consumer goods industry, not least because consumers and investors are increasingly focusing on this topic.
  • To increase the sustainability of a product, we at Zühlke have further developed our proven methods of reducing manufacturing costs.
  • However, it is important to know as precisely as possible what really makes a product sustainable - in this blog we reveal what is important.
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For consumer goods manufacturers, sustainability is becoming more and more important. A few years ago few consumers really cared about sustainability, but, particularly in the wake of the 2019 school climate strikes, that has now changed. When they buy something, consumers want to be able to do so with a clear conscience. And it’s not just consumers – for investment managers too, this year has seen a major shift towards investing in businesses which are certified as sustainable. Government too has an interest in promoting sustainability. Germany is playing a leading role in realising the UN sustainable development goals.

When we review the sustainability of products for our clients, some criteria are universal. All our clients place a strong emphasis on avoiding harmful substances, ease of recycling and minimising resource use. But what about energy consumption during manufacture and operation?

Below, we take a closer look at these criteria. We show you how you can make your products more sustainable and look at the key issues involved. But first, we’d like to take you on a tour of the methodology we use at Zühlke.

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The Zühlke methodology for enhancing the sustainability of consumer products

Our starting point for enhancing the sustainability of consumer products was our established methodology for reducing manufacturing costs. Until recently, when reengineering consumer products this was very much focus.

The Zühlke method involves systematically recording the costs for each individual component and sub-assembly. We then analyse which costs can be assigned to which individual functions. Our experience with the electronics, mechanical engineering and software aspects of device development means we take an all-round view, taking into account software development and software life cycle costs. The final step involves using tried and tested creativity techniques to identify disruptive approaches to reducing manufacturing costs.

So when it came to enhancing product sustainability, we took the principles of this methodology and applied them to this new task. Now our task is not just to reduce the financial footprint of a product, the new methodology also aims to reduce its environmental footprint.

Avoid harmful substances

The first point we address when it comes to sustainability is harmful substances. Avoiding harmful substances relates both to the materials used and to the manufacturing process. When we analyse the list of components that go into a consumer appliance, we look for components that could contain harmful substances. Because these components are often bought in from other manufacturers, the key point is the purchase specification. Go through these to identify any problem areas.

Sometimes harmful substances are used in the manufacturing process. This is the case for some industrial chemicals and plant protection products, for example, and in the production or extraction of some raw materials. Thermal processes can also unintentionally produce harmful substances. It is therefore necessary to catalogue and analyse the entire manufacturing process.

Not all harmful substances are simple to replace. In some cases they serve an essential function. Minimising their use requires the development of alternative technical solutions. The solder in electronic circuits, for example, is traditionally made using heavy metals. To avoid the use of these potentially harmful materials, heavy metal–free alternatives have now been developed.

Make it easier to recycle

Once any harmful substances have been eliminated, the focus switches to product recycling. The top item on our sustainable product development checklist is minimising the number of different plastics used in the product. Using fewer materials makes subsequent recycling much simpler. Composite materials also increase recycling costs. We also think about designing product sub-assemblies to facilitate dismantling, thereby making products easier to maintain and extending product life. This also has the effect of making products easier to recycle. 
Reduced resource use during and prior to manufacture

Analysing resource use is just as complicated. The processes involved in obtaining many natural raw materials consume large volumes of water. This applies, for example, in the case of textiles made from plant fibres. Conversely, because they are naturally biodegradable, such textiles also have benefits. To compare alternative textiles, you therefore need to be able to estimate factors ranging from post-consumer recycling rates to water availability in the country of manufacture.

The significance of energy consumption for sustainable products

Once we've analysed harmful substances, recycling and resources, the next step is to look at energy consumption. For most household appliances, energy consumption in use is a key element of their carbon footprint. This determines their energy efficiency class. In the case of washing machines, water consumption is shown, but is not used in calculating energy efficiency. For consumers who get their electricity from a green energy supplier, energy efficiency makes no difference to their carbon footprint, since their energy is generated from renewables. In terms of overall environmental impact, therefore, for these consumers water consumption is the key factor. So will energy consumption become environmentally almost irrelevant in a few years time, as we solve our energy problems?

For rechargeable and battery-powered devices, of course it’s a different story. For these devices, energy consumption is extremely important, as it allows smaller, more environmentally friendly energy storage devices.

Energy consumption during manufacture no longer a big sustainability issue

Many manufacturers are currently working to switch to carbon-neutral energy suppliers. An energy supply transition for raw material extraction and upstream manufacturers is also likely to occur. Should this come to pass within the next few years, reducing energy consumption in manufacturing will no longer make a difference in terms of protecting the climate or sustainability. So might energy consumption in manufacturing become almost irrelevant within a few years?
If we succeed in switching to sustainably generated electricity at all steps along the value chain, other criteria – reducing harmful substances, reducing consumption of resources such as water, and ease of recycling – will become more important. Personally, I’m a big fan of the cradle-to-cradle approach, which starts from the idea of a waste-free product life cycle. This means designing products to be completely recyclable after use. This idea may be set to become a bigger issue than energy consumption during use.

Here at Zühlke, we'll be keeping a close eye on developments in the consumer appliance sustainability field. We are constantly refining our methodology for reengineering appliances to enhance sustainability. In particular, we put our product development expertise to work right from the concept phase.

If you have any questions or ideas on this topic, please get in touch!

Zühlke Alexander Kuchenbecker

Alexander Kuchenbecker

Business Solution Manager
Contact person for Germany +49 6196 777 54 416

Alexander Kuchenbecker manages mandates at Zühlke ranging from agile software to hardware and entire devices. As a mechanical engineer he has more than 12 years of experience in the development of products and their industrialisation. At Zühlke, he uses the aspects of agile product development in particular to provide our customers with optimal support in the development of networked digital products.