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What part of your intelligent product is worst for the environment?

Martine Stillman
17 Aug 2022

What is the most environmentally damaging part of an intelligent product’s lifecycle? The plastic packaging? The disposal of electronic waste? Shipping?

Whilst each of these has hit the headlines as the scourge of product’s climate impact, the real – and perhaps unsatisfactory – answer is: ‘it depends’.

It can be easy to focus a sustainability drive on the latest consumer pressure point. But in reality every product is different, and the most environmentally beneficial changes will be unique to your business.

Companies that genuinely want to make the most meaningful changes to their product’s environmental impact should rise above the day-to-day narrative, put aside their gut feelings, and instead do a data-driven assessment of their product’s lifecycle impact.

It’s almost never what you think

If there’s one thing we can say with certainty about product’s environmental footprint, it’s that the biggest contributors are almost always unexpected.

For example, we worked with a wearables company to assess their product’s lifecycle emissions. We found one of the biggest contributors was the size of the box. The too-big box meant fewer items per freight load, which meant more emissions per unit. They also were using air freight rather than shipping due to historical supply chain arrangements. By changing these two areas, they knocked 10% off lifetime emissions.

These changes may not have been intuitive to someone sitting in an American HQ far away from the factories, but they were what the data showed.

However, this was specific to this case. In another wearables example, the device was smaller, and changes from air to shipping made no significant difference.

Then, in another example – a coffee machine – by far the biggest impact was nothing to do with its production, but the energy it used during its lifetime, which were about 30 times greater than its manufacturing emissions, and 300x the packaging impact

Data, not instinct, is the key to sustainability

To understand a product’s lifecycle emissions, and so make the best decisions, we need a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of its entire footprint, from raw material extraction, manufacture, transportation, use, and disposal. This includes everything, from packaging to parts to recycling, and is the best holistic assessment of a product’s true impact, which can be measured with a variety of metrics. Intelligent products have particular challenges, since they often involve complex hard-to-recycle components or hazardous materials (especially in batteries) and require energy to function. But the essential process is the same for all products.

They key is to take a data-based approach – not to jump to conclusions. Once you know where the biggest impacts are, you can make informed decisions about the most effective changes.

A simple exercise can tell you quite a lot. A lifecycle analysis/sustainable design expert can derive a huge amount on insight from quite basic data on size, volume, main materials, and location of manufacturing and markets. Even a product photo can give us a lot to get started with. This data can then be put into models to identify the ‘hotspots’ – the pieces of the product’s life that are creating the biggest environmental impact.

Of course, with more detailed data from both manufacturing and use, more sophisticated analyses are also possible. Connected products in particular present opportunities to perform real-time assessment of energy usage and longevity. This can be fed that back into design, and even used to make changes after the product is sold via over-the-air software updates – in our coffee maker example, a simple software change to reduce the default ’keep warm’ time could have been implemented remotely and had a huge impact on its power consumption.

But that all depends on how sophisticated your data collection is, and your resources for emissions reductions. A long-term sustainability program is great, but it is better to do something with what you have, than spend a year gathering perfect data then run out of time, money, or momentum to implement the actual changes.

What we would say is the earlier you start in the product development, the better. Too many LCAs are done after the product is made. By performing a series of small LCAs as you progress through design and scale up, you can make a much bigger impact by catching the greatest hotspots when it is possible to change them, and saving your company money by doing it right the first time.

Better for the environment, better for your bottom line

Doing all this may sound like a high-cost endeavor. But, in truth, many times the sustainable design changes actually reduce the cost of the project. Software changes, for example to improve energy efficiency, are usually simple and low cost. Reducing the amount of material you use, or switching to more sustainable transport is usually a significant money-saver. Most of the time, sustainable design is focused on reducing the amount of resources to make, ship, use, and dispose of a product — and when you aren’t using resources, you don’t pay for them.

Even where changes do not save money, they can usually be done without great cost. We estimate we can reduce most companies’ product lifetime emissions by 20-50% without significantly impacting the user experience or the bottom line, and often improving both. All of which gives you a great sustainability message to your customers, which is genuine, credible and data-driven.

Synapse, Part of Capgemini Invent, is a product development consultancy. We have developed an iterative sustainable design process which provides a formal structure for designing and evaluating against sustainability objectives, and which fits within a typical product development process.


Martine Stillman

Vice President of Engineering, Synapse Product Development