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Why sustainability is significant in design engineering

Posted: 18 Oct 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:sustainability? Life cycle analysis? footprints?

Carbon, energy, water, and waste data embedded during the design phase are more than just simply good environmental stewardship. Design engineers can use global standards and trends in sustainability to get electronics projects off the ground, and drive accelerated development.

Design engineers have always been right at the center of product evolution. Sustainability is the latest term which essentially stands for straightforward, eternal pieces of any designdurability, efficiency and componentry. The difference in 2011 is that there are now globally accepted metrics for measuring the real currency of sustainability.

It's all about the numbers
Before we analyze a business case and strategic opportunities, we need to focus on the current state of play. There are two types of measurement approaches which by now will have become familiar for design engineers, which both widely deliver absolute data for 4 main currencies, which have become commonplace, namely Carbon emissions (metric tonnes of CO2-equivalent), energy use (gigajoules), water use (cubic meters), and waste (subdivided into waste type, in cubic meters):

Embodied footprints are the product of the above metrics (carbon, energy, water, waste) and expressed in terms of what it takes to produce a product or service, and measured by unit of output (E.g. the manufacture of an electrical appliance, a car, a building, or even an event with a finite lifetime.) Life cycle analysis (LCA) measures the embodied footprints of a product, and is increasingly sophisticated, with thousands of data sets already built in. Examples of these tools include SimaPro and Sustainable Minds.

Operational footprints measure the output of an operating product or service (e.g. an electrical appliance, power station, or organization) over time. They are commonly measured by tracking Environmental Management Systems which are in common use with large companies. Typical examples are CG from Carbon Guerilla, and offerings from the usual suspects, including SAP and CA Technologies.

It's important to make sure footprints are verified and most importantly communicated properly online. Our experience with, where we track over 17,000 company data sets, is that full public disclosure generally drives organizations forward to achieve better and better overall results. Most companies use guidelines for measurement provided by the GRI, BSI or ISO, standards operators who develop measurement protocols which can be bought reasonably cheaply and applied to different sectors.

Of course, many products have an embodied footprint as well as an operational one. For example, a car has an embodied carbon footprint that takes into account its manufacture, within a boundary definition agreed by industry, expressed in tonnes of CO2-equivalent (tCO2-e). It also has an operational footprint, express in grams of Co2-e per kilometer. A company has an operational footprint expressed as tCO2-e/year. Thousands of company footprint examples can be found at

"What gets measured gets managed" is the best way to describe the business case behind sustainability metrics. Carbon, energy, water and waste data embedded during the design phase has more to it than simply good environmental stewardship.

If you can work the sustainability metrics in to the design stage, so much the better. The approach can help get the project get up and running, says Steve Lipmann, Head of Sustainability with Microsoft: "The more a scorecard can be tied to things your company cares about the better. The metrics need to grab your management's attention and relate to cost and quality to be effective. Microsoft has a number of decentralised purchasing groups that handle different aspects of our sourcing and we want to drive more consistency across them from a reporting perspective. From a materiality perspective, we have the most mature program come out of our hardware products. For example, we have an expert in our Xbox factories, overseeing the line every day. Microsoft has a number of companies that do our final assembly of products and we report their carbon emissions for them. This gives us a good understanding of their business processes and where they can improve."

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