Here’s a simple answer to our global sustainability challenges: better design.

An oversimplification? Maybe. Or maybe better design is just the reframing that is needed to solve a bevy of modern industrial problems plaguing businesses across the globe.

Some companies get this, and are taking proactive steps to apply design thinking to large sustainability challenges. Samsung recently announced that its new Galaxy S4 is the first smartphone to receive a Sustainability Certification from TCO Development, a non-profit that certifies electronics for sustainability. A sustainability certification is not just another ‘nice-to-have’ feature in the race for global smartphone market share. It can provide measurable business benefits through encouraging better design across the enterprise, not just within the product.

Design for Elimination of e-Waste
An important aspect to the Sustainability Certification is that is requires the design and implementation of an electronics take-back program. Samsung already has a robust e-waste collection program in place, through partnerships with Universal Recycling Technologies, Electronic Recyclers International, and Walmart. Samsung provides an interactive tool on its website that directs consumers to locations where they can bring their old smartphone (and other e-waste), including Walmart stores, Goodwill, Best Buy, and in many cases the local municipality’s Public Works locations.

The proliferation of consumer electronics such as smartphones is expected to skyrocket in the coming years. This will mean exponentially increasing amounts of e-waste, for which the most common solution seems to be shipping it off to developing countries where it poisons children and workers, ruins the environment, and will impose public health and environmental costs on those communities for years. According to the International Labor Organization, this is the fate of 80% of our e-waste. However, take-back programs remove these materials from the waste stream by recycling them into new products.

In the US, the federal government has largely left e-waste regulation up to the states, and they vary greatly from place to place. Sustainability certifications can encourage a design-based solution, making products that are taken back by retailers easier to dismantle and recycle by manufacturers.

Retailers win by having additional foot traffic as consumers come back into stores to recycle their electronics (and will often buy something new).
Manufacturers win by reclaiming materials that can be reused at a lower cost than purchasing virgin materials.
The environment benefits from not having additional tons of toxic materials seeping into soil and waterways.
Communities in developing countries benefit from not being the recipients of dumped toxic e-waste.

In my next post, I’ll explore how design-thinking through Sustainability Certifications can be applied to socially-responsible manufacturing systems.