Startups, here’s how you can make hardware without destroying the planet

TL;DR: Weave sustainability into product design as early as possible

No one boots the hardware an enterprise with the express goal of destroying as much of the planet as possible. Walking around the startup hall at CES, I noticed that—with a few notable exceptions—there was painfully little attention paid to material selection, repairability, ease of disassembly, and end-of-life considerations.

It’s really annoying – but as someone who once ran a hardware startup, I know it’s hard to prioritize when you have limited time and resources. But if, as a startup founder, you can’t make planet-friendly decisions when the buck literally stops at you, when can you?

To find out how you can create greener hardware, we spoke with Lauryn Menard, a professor at the California College of the Arts, where she teaches the future of biodesign. She is also an advisor to Women in Design SF and the co-founder and creative director of PROWL Studio, an Oakland, CA-based design and futures of materials consultancy focused on sustainable solutions.

“As a startup, you have a choice. The thing is, we live in such a capitalistic society and a lot of decisions are made based on time and money,” explained Menard. Startups want to think about sustainability, but they move at breakneck speed trying to get the product to market as quickly as possible. “Startups they have to hit the target price and all that good stuff.”

“You don’t have to adopt a new bioplastic, instead you can choose something that already exists: It doesn’t have to be all made of new damn material!” Lauryn Menard

But there are some big things moving in the market. Consumer demands are changing, climate promises, circularity strategies and environmental issues are bubbling to the surface. It’s hard to say whether enough customers are making purchasing decisions based on a company’s green credentials to meaningfully move the needle, but product development cycles can take years, and who knows what the landscape will be like once your product hits the market? For some companies, it might make sense to take the risk, but other founders are starting to think differently about how products are made.

“Ifa startup is run exclusively by engineers, which can be problematic: Engineers tend to be anxious [about] they make sure they reach their destination. They put all their energy into making something work, and they tend to gravitate toward materials, fabrication methods, and production processes that they already know,” explained Menard. “What we saw [be] it is very beneficial to work with a design studio that specializes in more sustainable ways of thinking and healthier materials. Or a partnership with someone like a material library so they’ve already started thinking about the functionality of the materials when they’re prototyping. In the same way that it takes a long time to get an MVP product that works and looks the way you want it, sometimes it takes a long time to put new material into an existing manufacturing process.”

Thinking about sustainability

One of the big challenges we have in creating more sustainable products is that we often replace plastic with something else. The problem is that plastic is already deeply embedded in work processes. Product designers love how predictable, easy to shape and repeatable plastic is.

There’s also no obvious one-for-one replacement for plastic; depending on the use case and the properties of the material you need, you may need to replace it with wool, paper, wood, plant pulp, carbon fiber, seaweed, hemp, mycelium, lab-grown leather, or any number of other materials available .

Here’s what founders and product designers can do to think more consciously about sustainability and product development.

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