TL;DR: Incorporate sustainability into product design as early as possible
Nobody starts a hardware company with the express purpose of destroying as much of the planet as possible. However, as I walked through the CES launch hall, I noticed that—with a few notable exceptions—painful attention was paid to material selection, reparability, ease of disassembly, and end-of-life considerations.
It’s really embarrassing, but as someone who used to run a hardware startup, I know it can be hard to prioritize when you’re short on time and resources. However, if as a startup founder you can’t make planet-friendly choices, when the responsibility literally stops with you, when can you?
In an effort to find out how to make greener hardware, we spoke with Lauryn Menard, a professor at California College of the Arts, where she teaches the future of biodesign. She is also an advisor to Women in Design SF and co-founder and creative director of PROWL Studioan Oakland, California-based design and materials futures consultancy focused on sustainable solutions.
“As a startup you have choices. The thing is, it’s such a capitalist society we live in, and a lot of decisions are made based on time and money,” Menard explained. The startups want to think about sustainability, but they are moving fast and trying to get a product on the market as quickly as possible. “The startups have to reach their target price and all that good stuff.
“You don’t have to adopt a new bioplastic. Instead, you can choose something that already exists. Not everything has to be made from some freaking new material!” Lauryn Menard
But there are some big things changing in the market. Consumer demands are changing, and climate commitments, circular strategies and environmental issues are all bubbling to the surface. It’s hard to say if enough customers are making purchasing decisions based on a company’s green credentials to meaningfully move the needle, but product development cycles can take years, and who knows what the landscape will look like by the time your product hits the market ? It might make sense for some companies to take the risk, but other founders are starting to think differently about how products are made.
“IIf the start-up is led only by engineers, it can be problematic: engineers often worry [about] make sure they reach the finish line. They put all their energy into making something work and are likely to gravitate towards materials, ways of making and production processes they are already familiar with,” explains Menard. ‘What we saw [be] really helpful is working with a design studio that specializes in more sustainable ways of thinking and healthier materials. Or partner with someone like a materials library so they’ve already started thinking about the functionality of the materials by the time they prototype. Just as it takes a very long time to get an MVP product that works and looks the way you want, sometimes it takes a long time to incorporate a new material into an existing production process.”
One of the big challenges we have in making more sustainable products is that we often replace plastics with something else. The problem is that plastics are already deeply embedded in workflows. Product designers love how predictable, easy to design and repeatable plastic is.
There’s no obvious one-to-one replacement for plastic either; depending on the usage situation and the material properties you need, you may need to replace it with wool, paper, wood, plant pulp, carbon fiber, seaweed, hemp, mycelium, lab-grown leather, or any number of other materials available.
Here’s what founders and product designers can do to think more consciously about sustainability and product development.