How can new engineers impact sustainability of the companies they work for?

Hello! I’m a PhD student developing course content for an upper-level undergraduate environmental engineering course. I want to prompt students to think through how they can impact sustainability of the companies they work for even though they don’t hold a ton of power.

Some of the things we talk about are environmental impact of materials, systems thinking for life cycle assessments, air quality, and water quality. But in reality, many new engineers only see a small part of those topics in their work and it might not be obvious how to make informed, sustainable decisions.

I’m wondering, how do current practicing engineers consider sustainability in their everyday work? And what advice do you have for new engineers in incorporating sustainability into their decision-making as new or intern-level engineers?

I find this aspect to my work comes up pretty frequently. There are almost always ways to retrofit older processes, and add sustainable features in new designs. The big challenge I, and most other engineers, face is convincing employers, managers, etc. to pursue these things.

The unfortunate truth is the world runs on money, especially the world of our professions, to a large extent. A big focus in adding sustainability is cost and savings. If sustainable design changes decrease overall cost or reduce operating costs, then you are already one step ahead in making it happen.

Without that, only a somewhat radical, progressive company that will sacrifice profits for such a cause will even consider such ideas.

So to be more succinct. Economics…particularly economics of sustainability is a very valid, worthwhile, and vital topic for students and emerging engineers who want to incorporate sustainability into their projects.

Waste stream recycling/reduction, energy recovery/reduction are area ripe for cost improvements.

Unfortunately, things like sustainably sourced materials and eco-friendly alternatives are frequently dead on arrival due to increased costs. There are exceptions to be sure, but a majority of businesses do not go for that stuff if they have cheaper options.


Agreed SS, sustainability is important, but economic justification carries the day.

To add a little to @SuperSalad 's excellent points, sustainability can have numerous starting and stopping points in a project. As an example, a material might be a sustainable material in and of itself, but if not sourced sustainably, then is it truly sustainable or is just satisfying a checked box in some subjective project criteria.

I have also seen the quality of construction compromised by selecting materials or processes that have LEED certification to get lower taxes, tax credits or reduced rates for energy compliances. As @Latexman correctly noted, economic justification will carry the day. That economic justification may be falsely applied when such considerations as tax credits and other credits come into play.

To be truly sustainable, in my opinion, the life cycle impacts must still be considered with selections of materials or processes.

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Thanks to all for your contributions! @SuperSalad and @Ron, I absolutely agree that sustainability is more than just checking a box or examining one aspect of i.e. a material without understanding the larger system.

Knowing that true sustainability requires system-level thinking, how can emerging engineers feel empowered to ask the necessary questions and gather the right information to make informed decisions?

Do either of you have experience or advice for how emerging engineers can contribute to the larger conversation of sustainability, including the economic factors?

An interesting extension of this conversation is how engineers measure sustainability both proactively and retroactively. Retroactively we have many tools - life cycle assessments, global warming potential, eco-audits, etc. But proactively, what tools exist to guide sustainable design and development?

Since @Ron brought up LEED - many researchers have discredited LEED certifications as they evaluate the designed performance of a building, rather than the actual performance. So to my knowledge, there are no widespread sustainability standards to guide construction.

You are correct. There are no widely accepted sustainability standards for construction. Some of the standards organization are working on them; however, it is a bit like herding cats.

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Help the students develop a sustainability focused problem solving lens that they can use alongside their traditional engineering problem solving lens. Since emerging engineers won’t have a lot of decision making capabilities, they will need to be well armed to argue and persuade decision makers into considering sustainability ideas when those decision makers are making a mostly economic decision.

I think most engineers think about sustainability by thinking about economics and not sustainability, i.e. how can I make sure to waste as little as possible given all my other constraints and objectives. I’ve personally never seen a project done simply for the sake of making something more sustainable, but I’ve seen projects done to reduce water waste, reduce chemical consumption for cleaning, or removing hazards that required a lot of resources to mitigate. Depending on how you slice it, all of these indirectly improve sustainability of an operation/business.


How can new engineers impact sustainability…? By understanding the basics. Very few of them are going to change the mindset of a company in their first ten years, but if they know how to deliver successful and profitable sustainable products when asked to, they will will find themselves being asked to do that more and more often.

Just seeing the words “Life Cycle” in the original post gives me grounds for hope.

With so little time to cram so much in, Undergraduate study rarely equips students to see far beyond the “how to create something that works” stage of a product’s life (and, if we’re lucky, create something energy-efficient along the way). Teach them that the customer is going to want a product to carry on working and is going to expect to maintain and repair it; that those activities are going to soak up a large proportion of the customer’s overall budget and that aftermarket can be a steady source of profit for the manufacturer.

Once students appreciate that background, you can begin to teach them the value of selecting products with a longer service life, designing things so that parts that are unavoidably made of high-environmental-impact materials are separable from parts that need to be changed out during routine repair and maintenance and of designing things so that the user is able to maintain, diagnose and repair them rather than having to chuck them away completely and start from scratch.

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Thank you all for the thoughtful responses. I like the idea that if young engineers know how to deliver sustainable products, ‘they will find themselves being asked to do that more and more often.’ It gives a sense of agency for students, that they can play a part in inserting themselves in design scenarios that consider sustainability over time.

@Zeusfaber, can you say more about the ‘aftermarket can be a steady source of profit for the manufacturer’? For example with the auto industry, some people might think it’s better to not build a car that lasts because then people will buy a higher quantity of cars over their life time. But you’re saying that building a car which lasts for a long time (i.e. in simple terms, more sustainable) can still have opportunities for the manufacturer to profit? Do you think this applies to industries other than automotive?

Automotive may not be the best example. That’s an industry where a lot of the parts are bought-in, where the component OEMs play direct into the aftermarket and where there’s a significant “pattern part” industry so it’s hard for vehicle manufacturers to see much of a profit stream from long-term support. Having spent years marketing cars as a fashion item, they’ve also created a leviathan which isn’t going to turn round quickly.

Take a couple of other industries instead.

Military aviation absolutely understands that once you’ve flogged an aeroplane, you’ve got a goose that keeps laying golden eggs. Airworthiness rules mean that the designer is going to be involved in everything that follows - at a price! The B-52 is going to hit 70 years in service soon with a plan to run the type on into its century. That’s not a bad long-term income stream.

The maritime industry has a lot to learn. Although ships are usually designed for a life of around 25 years, are stuffed full of expensive bits of machinery and the industry is seeing increasingly tight regulation, a surprising number of equipment OEMs fail to capitalise on this.

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