17 February 2014

An (Electric/Hybrid) Streetcar Named Desire

I find the automotive sector so fascinating when it comes to sustainability. The sector has got so much right already, and should be the envy of other sectors:

  • a used-car (second owner) industry, extending the life of a physical product
  • repair workshops (garages) and parts provision to maintain a car and keep it running efficiently
  • a focus through EU regulation on tailpipe emission regulation (plus lots of other regulation like congestion charging)
  • car-sharing clubs (including peer-to-peer) maximising the use of idle assets
  • parts marked for dis-assembly, helping support re-use and/or waste stream segregation

However, in recent times, electric/hybrid cars have been considered niche/quirky, and received a lot of bad motoring press - over-priced for the performance delivered, question-marks about their battery-life and its range, and government subsidies not being enough to stimulate demand.

The key to a sustainability proposition, in any sector, isn't to appeal exclusively to those that understand the importance of sustainability, but develop a proposition which is simply better than the traditional alternativesFor cars, this can be measured across varying measures - performance (top speed, 0-60, etc.), purchase cost, warranty and reliability, equipment levels, brand, etc.  

When it comes to desirability, motor manufacturers showcase their expertise with supercars.  Although out of reach for most (and often considered symbols of excess and exuberance), they are critical in helping shift perceptions with both the public and the motoring press, increasing acceptability of alternatively fueled vehicles.

Here's a selection of the cars which are creating such a buzz in the industry at the moment... (links to manufacturers as part of titles)

McLaren P1
McLaren P1
McLaren P1
McLaren P1
McLaren P1

Porsche 918 Spyder

Porsche 918 Spyder
Porsche 918 Spyder

Porsche 918 Spyder
Porsche 918 Spyder

Ferrari LaFerrari

Ferrari LaFerrari
Ferrari LaFerrari

Ferrari LaFerrari
Ferrari LaFerrari

Ferrari FXX K

Ferrari FXX K

Ferrari FXX K

Ferrari FXX K

BMW i8

BMW i8
BMW i8
BMW i8


Tesla S

Tesla S
Tesla S
Tesla S
Tesla S

Of course, the purchase price of these vehicles (and their ownership profile) is unlikely to mean that in themselves, they will deliver a sustainable solution. But, they have every chance of being the catalyst to create a real step-change in the industry, as technologies filter-down to affordable parts of the range (or sister brands, e.g. Ferarri is mainly owned by Fiat, Porsche has links with VW, etc.), and 'Joe Public' generates demand at lower price points.  

And isn't it terrific that the car posters which kids today will be sticking on their walls will help them understand, shape and expect an even greener era of motoring.

In an upcoming blog I'll talk much more about the business model for mobility, and how the physical car is only part of the experience which needs be offered.

16 February 2014

Can WEEE do better?

WEEE is 'Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment', and the WEEE Directive is European-wide regulation aiming to help reduce the amount of waste from electrical goods ('eWaste'), recently 'recast'.  Although simple in principle (don't send electricals to landfill), it's a highly complex area.  I wanted to explore how the Directive supports (or otherwise) the need to consume less, and encourage reuse.

***N.B. I'm no expert on this area, so if anyone is able to correct my interpretation of the WEEE Directive, please do so via the comments***

The relevant parts of the Directive for this blog are:
  • WEEE is measured by weight
  • WEEE is categorised, and reported separately.  So, '1 - Large Household Appliances' (e.g. a washing machine) are tracked separately to '3 - IT and Telecommunications Equipment' (e.g. a laptop)
  • Until Dec 2015, at least 4kg (or average of last three years if greater) of WEEE per inhabitant of each member state must be collected (UK exceeded this).  After this, the collection rate is a % of the total average annual weight of new electrical products placed onto the market during the three preceding years
  • The three main collection mechanisms for WEEE are reported separately:
    • via a DCF (Designated Collection Facility), e.g. Local Authority
    • via a PCS (Producer Compliance Scheme)
    • via a AATF (Approved Authorised Treatment Facility)
  • In 'Article 4' there is a need to consider ecoDesign principles, such that producers (manufacturers) do not inhibit the re-use of their products

Measuring WEEE by weight

I recently bought a new TV, after my old one (a Sony 28" CRT TV (KV-28LS35U)) was on its last legs (purchased in 2001).  It weighed 43Kg.

My Old TV - passed onto someone else via Freecycle

My new (A+ energy rated) LED TV weighs 14.3Kg, even though it has a 42" screen.  The same thing is of course happening with lots of technology, old computer CRT monitors with separate desktops, being replaced in homes by iPads, etc.  There are two implications of this to me:
  • As less CRT TVs/monitors end-up in landfill (one assumes there is only a small proportion still in-use still to be replaced), we should start to see the absolute weight of annual WEEE in some categories reduce.  This should not be seen as a success of the circular economy, but just a natural consequence as new, lighter technology is replaced.
  • Tracking absolute numbers of devices provides significant additional insight, albeit an overhead to record.

Targets of WEEE as % of EEE

To combat the 'lightweighting' of technology, the WEEE Directive will now have targets which are relative to the amount of new electrical equipment (EEE) entering the market.  Sounds sensible, and much better than an absolute weight target.  But:
  • Where's the incentive for a manufacturer to explore its business model and move away from selling as many products as possible, and perhaps derive revenues from services, or experiences? 
Collection methods

I couldn't see anywhere in the WEEE Directive where there was a target to increase the relative use of PCS (Producer Compliance Schemes), compared to say the local authority.  This might be a missed oportunity, as putting the logistical burden as well as financial burden for taking-back used products onto the manufacturer may encourage innovation, e.g. designing for re-use, refurbishment, or even a business model where the product is leased between many users.

Could WEEE encourage consumption?

My hypothesis is that as WEEE becomes better understood by consumers, and accepted that it's well managed (e.g. treatment of hazardous waste, and export restrictions), consumers may buy more electrical devices guilt-free, not less.  This will be further enhanced by producers interrogating their supply chains to eradicate use of conflict minerals, for example.  Without suitable controls, lack of targets to reduce absolute numbers of devices, nor business models which don't rely on selling products, it may be difficult for a step-change absolute reduction to occur.  And will consumers with an environmentally conscientious mind shy away from Freecycle and the potential extended life of products a second owner could offer, if they feel WEEE manages all their concerns?

Competition versus collaboration

I'm not a manufacturer, but I'd imagine if I was, as WEEE targets/fines increase, I'd want to 'beat' my competitor.  There's nothing like competition to drive a bit of innovation.  Unless of course it's collaboration.  Imagine if there was some sophistication within WEEE where designers were incentivsed to not only produce devices which were easy to dismantle, repair and reuse, but also where common parts were shared to support the particular sector's sustainability ambitions overall.

What I'd like to see
  • Regulation for manufacturers (and retailers) to be more accountable for the practicalities of dealing with their WEEE, not just the cost; that should drive innovation in reverse logistics (perhaps with industry collaboration), as well as the design of the product itself
  • Targets which address the absolute quantity of EEE entering the market, not just the relative amount which gets managed as WEEE
  • All devices designed for repair, upgrade, reuse and dismantling
  • Regulation for longer warranties, driving durability in design

11 February 2014

Every cloud has a silver lining...?

The floods in the UK in the last couple of months have truly been newsworthy, in fact some of my own (uninspiring!) footage of Guildford was used on a BBC London News bulletin:

In some parts of the country, water levels were (are!) reaching unprecedented heights, property, livelihoods and transport infrastructure has been damaged, and people are questioning how warnings have been ignored, with funding allocated to more vote-winning (until now) political areas.

I hope everyone comes through this safely, and Great Britain will bounce back and become stronger, perhaps considering some longer-term sustainability wins...

Respecting Nature

Although it's easy to assume that human activity hasn't exacerbated the impact of prolonged, heavy rain, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that changes in land-use in upland areas mean there's a greater likelihood of flooding in lowland areas.  Towards the end of 2013, before this recent flooding started, I started reading a book by Tony Juniper, "What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?".

It's an incredibly well-researched book with page after page of examples about the importance of the biodiversity and ecosystems we live around - and the monetary impact of taking them for granted.  Specifically, it cites examples where countries have seen the impact of changes of land use impacting flooding.  It certainly adds complexity to the potential move to allow destruction of ancient woodland (see Independent Article) - a habitat which is crucial to the UK.

Climate Change

Climate change is happening, and of course whether humans have contributed/caused it, is debated by some.  There is though, significant evidence to suggest that as the planet warms, the atmosphere has a greater capacity to store water and this will lead to a greater frequency of extreme weather events.  

Sometimes extreme weather in distant lands can be hard to relate to (albeit with global supply chains, the UK can feel the impact in indirect ways). Having such extreme weather events in the UK though, brings it (literally) home, and might help revitalise the debate about climate change.  What's going to be really interesting though is how to apportion efforts (and budgets) between adaptation (e.g. flood defences), versus mitigation (reducing carbon emissions to prevent as much as possible any negative changes in climate).

Sense of Community

Parts of the UK have lost their sense of community, but the importance of community is critical to a sustainable future.  There is nothing like a crisis to bring people together, so for flood-impacted areas, maybe a huge positive can be born.  Could we see collaboration between the local authority, large employers, community groups and charities coming together to create a resilient 'civil defence' group?  Could the same group explore community energy schemes, collaboration consumption, cycle (or canoe!) hiring schemes, etc?

10 February 2014

The sweet smell of sustainability

Unilever has incredible scale, offering a bewildering array of products to consumers around the globe.  With that comes huge responsibility of course, something which luckily their CEO, Paul Polman, takes very seriously.  He is one of the few CEOs who are providing sustainability leadership both within his company, but also across industries.  Please take the time to read more about Unilever's 'Sustainable Living Plan'.

Compressed Deodorants

One of Unilever's recent innovations caught my eye - they've dramatically reduced the size of their aerosol deodorants.  For the same amount of product, they use half the amount of propellant, 25% less aluminium, and fewer lorries required to transport them.  There's more information on their microsite.  It's a great step and sets a new benchmark for the sector.  Even for those that won't make a purchase based on the environmental impact should find a smaller size attractive (as long as they understand it will last as long).

However successful this is, could there be even more innovation for this simple product?  Here are some ideas - what do you think?

  • Aerosol vs. stick vs. roll-on.  There are three major form factors for deodorants - the aerosol, the roll-on, and the stick.  Do consumers know which will minimise their impact on the environment, taking account of their 'lifecycle' (impacts from raw materials extraction, to production, to transportation, to disposal/recycling)?
  • Another form factor? When MUM (as in "Mum's the word") launched the first commercial deodorant in 1888, it was sold as a cream in a jar. Could a renaissance of that form factor work?
  • Reusable components.  For a long time, Body Shop have sold a roll-on deodorant which is refillable, allowing part of the applicator (the ball and outer case) to be re-used.  Why is this not mainstream?

  • Dosage Control.  My hunch is that most people use more deodorant that in actually required - a cheeky extra bonus spray, or extra smudge of roll-on?  Could the casing provide a default dosage of deodorant suitable for most people, perhaps with the ability to tweak up/down the default as the user (or their family, friends and colleagues!) got used to what's required?
  • Sweat less.  Is there room for fabric technology innovation and clothing design to help minimise sweating?  Sports clothing already does this, so can any lessons be incorporated into other clothing?
  • Sweat even less.  People sweat for lots of reasons, but there might be some common triggers, e.g. lack of fitness, coping with stress, lack of confidence in speaking, etc.  Could a manufacturer address the lifestyle and well-being of its consumers in a positive way, such that less product is required?  Could even a simple nudge to drink more cold (tap) water help?

09 February 2014

A Smarter Kettle?

The humble kettle is found in almost every kitchen, and although there are a variety of shapes and sizes available, they basically perform the very simple function: boiling water safely.

Simple(ish) physics dictates how much energy is required to boil the water, so one might assume there is no room for design improvements in the way we use kettles.  However, maybe there are not just incremental improvements to design, but also some more radical approaches...

These are the incremental design considerations features all kettles could have:
  • Durable design.  Kettles go through a lot in their lives and although a cheap kettle might save a few pounds up-front, it can be a false economy for both the purchaser and the environment, if it has to be discarded after a few months and a new one purchased.   Could a manufacturer design a kettle with a five year, or even lifetime, warranty?
  • Low minimum fill.  Plenty of people only want to boil enough water for one cup/mug.  Let's make that possible, and make it very, very clear what that level is.  Of course, people have different sized cups and mugs, so why not make the markers user-adjustable, one for that favourite mug, another for the family tea-pot, etc.
  • Variable temperature setting. You don't always need boiling water, so why waste energy boiling it unnecessarily? A lot of herbal teas and cold/flu remedies work with water at 90°C, so let's make that an option
A kettle with a varying temperature setting
My Bosch TWK86103GB - variable temperature setting
  • Switch off when it's boiled.  A lot of kettles continue to boil the water for several seconds after the water has reached boiling point, unnecessarily
So far, so good.  But is buying a kettle, using it for 3-4 years, then throwing it out the right answer? Possibly not...

Rather than buying a kettle from a retailer, could the manufacturer offer a service direct to its consumers?  Beyond that, could they help build brand affinity even further?

Let's look at what a 50p a month (£6 per year) kettle service look like...
  • You order a kettle direct from the manufacturer's website (with all the features outlined above).  It arrives in some reusable and foldable packaging, you're asked to keep
  • You use your new kettle as normal
  • If there's a problem, you send the kettle back to the manufacturer (freepost), and once validated, then send back a replacement/refurbished one; this offer is available for life, even if you move home
  • The manufactuer is heavily incentivised to make their kettle last as long as possible, easy to upgrade/repair and minimise the use of raw materials in its production

And how about a £1 per month (£12 per year) kettle service?  Everything above, plus:

How about the kettle has an in-built USB stick*, and the ability to record how much water is put in the kettle when filling it, then compares to how much is actually used (poured)?  Uploading the data to the manufacturer's website allows a graphical display of how much water was boiled unnecessarily (and its approximate cost) - perhaps contrasting against others in a league table.  And perhaps this could also provide additional diagnostic information such as a recommendation for when to descale the kettle for optimum performance.  This data gives the manufacturer valuable insight into how their products are used for future innovation...

*Assumption is that a realtime Zigbee/wi-fi enabled kettle might be considered an invasion of privacy

What have we achieved with the ideas above?
  • You and I still get to have a cup of tea whenever we want
  • We find intuitive aspects of the product design which mean we only use the amount of water we need... and to the maximum temperature required
  • Manufacturers are incentivised to make the kettles last as long as possible
  • We, and the manufacturer, learn a little more about how we use our kettles

I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts, so please add your comments below.  If you've got any links for innovative approaches to kettles, please share these too.