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Earlier this year, Bloomberg News performed an experiment. They mounted tiny tracking devices on plastic bags used by a British retailer to track the journey of the bags after they left the store.1 In some cases, bags traveled as far as 2,000 miles from their point of origin. It is a classic example of the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome.

In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine the sheer volume of plastic bags that have entered the Earth’s ecosystem in recent decades, along with the myriad of other trash we humans generate every minute of our existence. One reason why reducing waste is so difficult is because the onus has mostly been put on the consumers. “It’s your responsibility to recycle,” we’re told. “Do your part.” And many of us do try, dutifully lugging recycling bins to the curb for weekly pickup. Nonetheless, the United States recycles only 8.7 percent of the plastics used. Europe does better, at 41.5 percent. Even after which, experiments such as the one above, call into question the “true” extent of recycling. In the absence of clear standards, policies, and thorough governance, the lack of transparency in the management of recyclable waste is evident.

The case in point is that our systems were never designed with sustainability in mind, but with convenience in mind, while leading us into the illusion, that recyclable waste is fully captured, processed, and reused, somehow!

Focusing on the point of origin—design

To really reduce our waste, the focus should be on the point of origin, meaning the ‘design’ stage. Manufacturers must make products more sustainable, durable, and easier to recycle by design, and companies have to design customer experiences with sustainability as a key design principle.

This is a topic I’m deeply passionate about. Over the years I have observed dozens of products—from the water faucet to the computer mouse—and thought about how they could be designed, packaged, and sold in a way that has less environmental impact. A McKinsey study2 published earlier this year found that up to 80 percent of a product’s lifetime emissions are determined by decisions made at the design stage. This study also observed that the research and development (R&D) of products typically accounted for five percent of a product’s cost, while it influenced up to 80 percent of a product’s total resource footprint.

Take the aluminum can for example. To make one, raw bauxite ore is treated with a white powder called alumina, compacted into slabs, then turned into sheets of aluminum to create a can. After use, the can if recycled properly, makes its way to a recycling facility where it is melted down to recover the metal, which is then used to make a new can again and again. This is a “closed-loop” model, in which a recyclable item travels in a continuous loop, from manufacturer to beverage company to consumer, and, then back to the manufacturer. A classic example of circular economy.

Unfortunately, the aluminum can (and glass bottle) is somewhat of an isolated case.

No more “make, break, and throw away”

The world’s enormous apparel industry, on the other hand, still adheres to a model best described as “make, break, and throw away.” An item is manufactured, used—sometimes only a few times —then tossed out, in what is remarked as the era of “fast fashion”. In other cases, a piece of clothing sees good use, but simply wears out and cannot be easily repaired. A better way would be, to think about every product as having as near to a closed-loop design as possible.

One major garment maker, for instance, recently quit putting corporate logos on their popular apparel. The reason? They found that corporate logos shortened the time a garment was used, sometimes by years. Another apparel brand uses special odor-control additives that keep the garment smelling fresh longer, therefore reducing the number of washes the garment needs. This saves both water and energy, while also prolonging the integrity and therefore life of the garment.

Eliminate wasteful design

Today, plastics are more ubiquitous than air. From the middle of our oceans to multiple layers in the water column, plastics are found everywhere. Microplastics have made their way into human blood and breast milk, according to recent research findings. The problem is only getting worse.  

Circa 300 million metric tons of plastics are produced every year, 50 percent of which is used just one time.

As an example, think of the soap dispenser you have by your sink. Chances are, due to inflation, it’s smaller in size than it was 10 years ago, a concept popularly known as “shrinkflation,” while costing roughly the same for the consumer.

But that’s also a bottle that empties much faster and is therefore thrown out much sooner. Because the company still makes a profit on the bottle of soap, there is no incentive to change to a less wasteful design.

Research by NielsenIQ3 found that in 2018 alone, consumers spent $128.5 billion on sustainable fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). The market for sustainable products has witnessed a 20 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) since 2014, four times larger than conventional products. NielsenIQ had expected it to hit $150 billion by 2021. This is one of several data points out there that prove the growing affinity of consumers for sustainable products.

Putting sustainability where it belongs—at the core of corporate strategy

Commitment to a more sustainable design must come from the top. Once that commitment is made and enforced, it triggers bottom-up innovation. At Microsoft, we hold our business groups accountable for their carbon emissions via an internal carbon fee of $15 per metric ton. In January 2021, we expanded the carbon fee to include Scope 3 emissions from our supply and value chain, in addition to Scope 1 and Scope 2. We set measurements and scorecards for each business group’s sustainability commitments across the company and review progress twice a year. This carbon fee creates powerful, systemic incentives, and is itself a form of design. It’s a way to design the operating principles of the company. It drives focus from the very top, and adoption and innovation from the bottom-up.

One such example of bottom-up innovation is the Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse, whose shell contains 20 percent recycled ocean plastics by weight, or the equivalent of half of a 16-ounce plastic water bottle. To produce this mouse, Microsoft collaborated with suppliers and built a complex supply chain to collect, clean, and transport ocean waste plastic for upcycling. This is the first time that ocean plastics have been used in a product intended for daily use by consumers, and it opens the door to all kinds of possibilities, while also showing us the power of embedding sustainability in design.

Thinking more broadly, regulatory authorities and governing bodies also play a significant role in influencing the design of regulations and policies that corporations and societies adhere to.

Microsoft’s commitment to help companies reach their sustainability goals

As the world’s focus shifts to sustainability and the environmental impact of companies’ operations and products they put into the marketplace, corporations are forced to rethink the design of their products and customer experiences. Product research and development require a significant investment of time. The pressure for sustainability transformation is only mounting by the day. So, the question is how can Microsoft help accelerate these efforts?  

At Microsoft, we’re both makers and big consumers of all things technology—Internet of things (IoT), digital twin, advanced analytics, Microsoft Dynamics 365, Microsoft Power Platform, you name it. The execution of sustainability transformation commands both speed and scale. And, only technology can enable that acceleration while also helping scale the impact.

Advanced analytics, machine learning, IoT, and digital twin technology can help capture near to real-time data and understand data across siloed systems in real time. AI can help speed the design cycle and create rapid prototyping of sustainable products. It can also give manufacturers insights into the carbon footprint of an item by tracing its entire supply chain to identify hot spots.

As corporations embrace advanced technologies, and cloud and digital solutions to advance their net-zero goals, sustainability has to be factored into software development to ensure the carbon footprint of digital technology itself is kept under check. Microsoft, Accenture, GitHub, and ThoughtWorks launched the Green Software Foundation with the Linux Foundation to put sustainability at the core of software development. This nonprofit is poised to build a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling, and best practices for building green software that will collectively help reduce the carbon emissions of software. Yet another quintessential example of embedding sustainability in design.

Take action to embed sustainability in design

Last year, we announced Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, which empowers organizations to accelerate sustainability progress and business growth by bringing together a set of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) capabilities across the Microsoft Cloud portfolio plus solutions from our global ecosystem of partners.​ Launched on June 1, 2022, Microsoft Sustainability Manager (MSM), is an extensible solution that enables organizations to more easily record, report, and reduce their environmental impact through increasingly automated data connections that deliver actionable insights.

These integrated capabilities will enable organizations to gain the transparency and insights they need to manage their environmental footprint, embed sustainability through their organization and value chain, and thereby have a positive impact on their triple-bottom line in a changing landscape.

In the end, everyone can and should take responsibility for a more sustainable design. From the executive office on down, a company determined to be sustainable can find hundreds of design improvements, large and small. It’s a step we all must take.

1A Plastic Bag’s 2,000-Mile Journey Shows the Messy Truth About Recycling, Bloomberg News.

2Product Sustainability: Back to the drawing board, McKinsey & Company.

3Was 2018 the year of the influential sustainable consumer? NielsenIQ.