Product Life Cycle Design – Supporting Environmental Sustainability

By Mark Morrissey

Design for the environment (DfE) is not as commonly known as design for manufacturability (DfM) but will become so as companies focus on incorporating environmental sustainability into the design of their products.

The catalyst for this increased focus comes from the attention the environment is receiving as the 3P’s: People, Planet and Profit, exert more influence over strategy and planning (Shukla, Deshmukh & Kanda; 2010; p 25). Consumers are becoming more conscientious about buying products where environmental considerations have been factored into its design and production. In the electronics industry a European directive, RoHS, mandates that all products sold into Europe comply with the directive that certain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame retardants, to name a few, not be included in the product. The World Trade Organization is addressing environmental sustainability issues such as gas emissions, and waste reduction goals for industry that were established in the Rio, Kyoto and Johannesburg accords. This was continued in the Montreal accord with the elimination of ozone-depleting substances.

It is important for organizations to understand how their products affect the environment through the selection of materials and manufacturing processes, and how products are ultimately disposed of. Material selection impacts the environment through contamination of the soil and water table with heavy metals and chemicals as products decay over time. Additionally, companies are now selecting components with longer life expectancy that in turn increase the life of their own products (Neto et al; 2010; p 4478).

Manufacturing processes consume resources and create by-product scrap that must be disposed or recycled, and also require energy in production, which has its own environmental footprint. Many companies opt to outsource the manufacturing to contract manufacturers, which may operate in the same country or in a low-cost country. It is important that companies monitor and audit their outsource partners to ensure environmental considerations are taken into account and, more importantly, that local laws and legislation are adhered to (Dou, Sarkis; 2010; p 573).

To reduce amount of product requiring disposal, some companies are beginning to establish reverse logistics programs that re-capture products at the end of their life thus allowing precious and semi-precious materials such as gold to be recovered and re-used. The rising price of commodities is making this a viable return on investment. Products can also be routed back into the supply chain and used as “B stock” products or for spare parts (already important in the automobile salvage industry) (Bevilacqua, Ciarapica, Giacchetta; 2007; pp. 4084 – 4087).

This requires modular design of the product for easy disassembly and upgrading. Another advantage of modular design is the ability to repair or upgrade products thus extending their useful life and delaying the eradication in a landfill. An entirely new industry is emerging for reclaiming products to extract precious metals.

The organizations in this industry earn revenue from the original manufacturers, from customers who send product to them for reclamation, and from selling the reclaimed material for alternative uses.

In application, the incorporation of DfM is still immature: a recent survey of electronics companies showed that 21% of respondents incorporated DfM into their product designs and only 14% reported the reuse of components.  Modular design is becoming more common in direct response to market demands for mass customization as it allows companies to be more flexible in the design of their products while reducing manufacturing costs through the use of common parts.

This is proving to be beneficial in the entire product life cycle as the repair and upgrading of products extends their life expectancy. Supply chains have adapted to become more flexible as consumers demanded mass customization of product and shortened life cycles while awaiting the next generation product. So too must supply chains adapt to incorporate “the 3P’s” as the market will insist on it. This translates into environmental sustainability becoming a mandatory qualifier for all companies within their respective markets.


Bevilacqua M, Ciarapica F.E. & Giacchetta G; (2007) Development of a sustainable product lifecycle in manufacturing firms: a case study; International Journal of Production Research; Vol. 45 (18-19); October;  pp. 4073- 4098

Dou Y & Sarkis J (2010) A joint location and outsourcing sustainability analysis for a strategic off shoring decision; International Journal of Production Research; Vol. 48 (2); January; pp. 567- 592

Neto J, Walther G, Nunen B,  & Spengler T (2010) From closed-loop supply chains: the WEEE case; International Journal of Production Research; Vol. 48 (15); August; pp. 4463- 4481

Shukla A, Deshmukh S.G. & Kanda A (2010) Flexibility and Sustainability of Supply Chains: Are they Together; Global Journal of Flexible Systems Management; Vol. 11 (1&2); pp. 25- 38


Mark Morrissey resides in Toronto, Canada, and consults in procurement and global sourcing. Mark has worked in the high tech sector and has experience in low cost country sourcing, supply chain development and department organizational change. He holds a Master of Science degree in Operations and Supply Chain from the University of Liverpool where he wrote his dissertation on environmental sustainability within supply chains. You may contact Mark at: