Scaling sustainability

Making the move from small scale making, prototyping or manufacturing (sometimes personally handmade) to large scale and outsourced manufacturing can be a daunting and confusing business. As well as this it may make you feel that you will have to compromise on your values and principles to succeed.A few weeks ago I joined the members of Makerhood and the Remakery at their new space in South London for talks and an interesting evening sharing, comparing and learning about the different types of considerations, benefits and barriers startups and smaller business owners face when considering scaling up.
On first appearance the challenges and considerations faced may initially seem vastly differing between the startups at the CRL who focus more on hardware/ software products then handmade or craft based items. However some underlying similarities emerged and shared concerns and difficulties around sustainability considerations and acting on intent were identified.

What’s your underlying purpose?

As part of the CRL Programme Fundamental sessions we’d had a session with the startups on business models. The examples used differed from many of the perhaps more usual companies and business models often talked about. They were all inspired and started from an inherent sustainability (ethical, social and/ or environmental) proposition. We highlighted some examples from the likes of Fairphone, Splosh, Rapanui, Open Energy Monitor and upcoming Andiamo who are all exploring new ways of doing business, engaging customers and disrupting sectors. Martyn Evans, Creative Director Of U+I, also shared some of his insights from when working for the Body Shop ( an original trail blazer in the area). I would recommend checking them all out for interesting and alternative business models.

Getting your house in order and then more!

It can be overwhelming to know where to start when scaling a startup or product sustainably, but there are a number of different levels you can start from and key tools and approaches to take and consider. Here’s just a taster:

Standards and Regulations

With ROHS, REACH, PVC/BFR, BPA free, conflict free minerals, packaging directives, Energy Using Products, labels and more, materials and energy use are key components and considerations of your product and as such, depending on application and country can be under specific regulation or perhaps consumer or NGO scrutiny.

Losing Control

Aim to ensure you specify supply chain banned and restricted substances as well as consider risks posed related to future supply shortages, monopolies or possible toxic substances. Different products and categories may have specific related regulations and standards you should aspire to. It’s also the same for quality, ensure you put requirements for this and testing methods that if not met, well then it’s not up to your own standard!

So what is Ecodesign?

Well there is the EU Ecodesign Directive that outlines measures to improve the performance of product on the market. Alongside this is Energy Labeling (for products using energy….). You’ve probably seen those coloured traffic light style labels on appliance such as fridges, but these are continually being developed and expanding to new product categories. Simplified considerations are around considering weight & volume reduction, material choices, energy efficiency, transport and lifetime. Requirements for these can all be implemented into your Product Design Specification, PDS.
A nice tool to consider is the Ecodesign Strategy Wheel that outlines considerations of design improvement areas from a product to a system level.
More recently inspired by Life Cycle Analysis and thinking and Cradle to Cradle, the Circular Economy has emerged as a key tool to stimulate consideration and design around reducing resource use. In the UK The Great Recovery have done some great work to highlight to designers the consequences of their designs. Quite often designing and making un-recyclable, un-repairable products with short lifetimes and ending in the rubbish tip…..

Some “simple” questions you may want to ask yourself when scaling

  • How long will my product last?
  • What happens if/ when it breaks?
  • What happens when the user/ customer doesn’t want it any more?
  • Would I be comfortable if the manufacturing was shown on TV? (see next area)

How, who by and where your product is being made

This is becoming increasingly visible and with the rise in online mapping and storytelling tools such as Source map and Provenance, coupled with citizen demand and headlines from child labour to poisonous substances, the otherside of the world is becoming closer to home. You need to ask yourself how confident you are that your business will stand-up to ethical, social, fairtrade scrutiny and what your values around this.

Just around the corner?

A key area that also came up was finding and trusting a manufacturer and the playoffs between local and global. But just where is that UK knowledge on this, mapping and contacts?
We’ll be sharing some more thoughts and hopefully advice and tools on this in our next blog, focusing on the higher levels of systems, values and purpose as well as some more tools to support this that we’ve learnt from the ESPRC Centre for Industrial Sustainability.
Ultimately sustainability shouldn’t be thought of a chore or a tick box exercise, it’s about designing the best solution for now and in the future, taking into account the consequences and your responsibility in this world as a designer, maker and manufacturer, startup or not.


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