Many ways of Visualizing Sustainability

A great picture can be better than lots of words, especially when depicting big concepts.  Conveying sustainability is a challenge as it means so many things to different folks.  The common definition of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations” is a start, but what does that really mean?

Take a look at Computing for Sustainability’s collection “Visualizing Sustainability” for images and graphics to convey sustainability concepts and frameworks – up to 179 images at present.  There are many ways of depicting sustainability as shown in all of these different diagrams.  One of my favorites so far is IDEO’s Product Lifecycle model (listed as number 52), included here: IDEO_Product_Life_Cycle

I like the way IDEO’s Product Lifecycle model represents an entire supply chain, including inputs (materials and energy) and outputs (products and waste) throughout the complete lifecycle while also including the concept of closed-loop flows (like a simplified version of Cradle to Cradle).  Of course the real world is much more complicated than this picture, yet this image presents a clear framework to visualize sustainability and reflect on how to make a positive impact. 

What’s your favorite sustainability framework or graphic?

Designing Sustainability: Transforming Supply Chains into Sustainability Circles, part 1

Only through deliberate design does a firm transform from a conventional supply chain into a sustainable value chain.  I define Sustainability Circles™ as a cyclical sustainability chain that encompasses the complete product lifecycle, as opposed to the traditional framework of a linear supply chain. 

I had the opportunity to speak at last year’s 2nd Annual Conference on Business & Sustainability at Portland State University, with the theme of Designing Sustainability.  This theme embraces the philosophy that design is the primary determinant of the social, environmental and financial impact of products, services, processes and business strategies. Deliberate forethought in conceptualizing and implementing sustainable business practices can significantly enhance social equity, reduce ecological harm and raise business value. 

My session track and panel discussion topic covered Operations and Supply Chain and my remarks covered how traditional supply chains as the status quo are changing and we will see an emerging emphasis on sustainability chains – with increasing attention being paid to reverse logistics and end-of-life considerations.  From there we need to move to a cyclical or regenerative model, consistent with Cradle-to-Cradle principles of “Waste makes FOOD” and closed loop design principles.  With a more systemic approach, we’ll need to move to thinking about this as a transformation to sustainability systems and thus redesigning our supply chains. 

Conventional Supply Chains

A conventional supply chain is typically a linear flow, optimized for one-way operations and local efficiencies only. Tracing the supply chain from the beginning, resources are extracted from nature by material suppliers. These raw materials are converted into component parts, and the component parts are assembled into end products and eventually are sold to the end user. Often there is little consideration for end-of-life or more typically there is reliance on a completely different entity or industry for product disposal at the end-of-life.

As an example, in the current automotive end-of-life dismantlers remove selected high value components and fluids are drained. Then the car is literally crushed, shredded and destroyed – this takes a tremendous amount of energy to reduce a car into fist sized pieces. After shredding, the metal and non-metallic pieces are separated with the metals sorted based on ferrous and non-ferrous content and often sent long distances for recycling. The remaining shredder residue being sent to landfills as “daily cover.” Although much of the content is recycled, it is still an energy intensive and wasteful process.

A Better Way

There is a better way. Though before we move on to describe the transformation into a sustainability chain there needs to be more consideration for the lifecycle assessment, including not only use (and the product should be designed for a long and useful life; for example, designed for reliability and durability).  And as things eventually wear out or fail (which they will), there needs to be a conscious design for serviceability. By this I am referring to the ability to easily repair, replace and service the product. And of course there needs to be a design for efficiency throughout the product’s lifetime.

To be continued in my next post on this topic…..