Sustainable design is often practiced and assessed through the consideration of three essential areas: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability. For even the simplest of products, the complexities of these three areas and their trade-offs cause decision making transparency to be lost in most practical situations. Additionally, the models and tools available to consider social sustainability are severely underdeveloped. This thesis is separated into three parts: 1) a design tool to consider all three aspects of sustainability simultaneously, 2) a literature survey to characterize social impact as it relates to products, and 3) interviews with engineering professionals regarding how social impact is currently considered in product design in industry.The existing field of multi-objective optimization offers a natural framework to define and explore a given design space. In chapter 2 of this thesis, a method for defining a products sustainability space (defined by economic, environmental, and social sustainability objectives) is outlined and used to explore the trade-offs within the space, thus offering both the design team and the decision makers a means of better understanding the sustainability trade-offs. This chapter concludes that sustainable product development can indeed benefit from trade-off characterization using multi-objective optimization techniques “ even when using only basic models of sustainability. Interestingly, the unique characteristics of the three essential sustainable development areas lead to an alternative view of some traditional multiobjective optimization concepts, such as weak Pareto optimality. The sustainable redesign of a machine to drill boreholes for water wells is presented as a practical example for method demonstration and discussion. In these efforts it became apparent that the tools for considering social impact were lacking and needed to be further developed.While efforts have been made to identify social impacts, academics, and practitioners still disagree on which phenomena should be included, and few have focused on the impacts of products specifically compared with programs, policies, or other projects. The primary contribution of chapter 3 of this thesis is to integrate scholarship from a wide array of social science and engineering disciplines that categorizes the social phenomena that are affected by products. Specifically, we identify social impacts and processes including population change, family, gender, education, stratification, employment, health and well-being, human rights, networks and communication, conflict and crime, and cultural identity/heritage. These categories are important because they can be used to inform academics and practitioners alike who are interested in creating products that generate positive social benefits for users.Though academic research for identifying and considering the social impact of products is emerging, additional insights can be gained from engineers who design products every day. Chapter 4 explores current practices in industry used by design engineers to consider the social impact of products. 46 individuals from 34 different companies were interviewed to discover what disconnects exist between academia and industry when considering a products social impact. These interviews were also used to discover how social impact might be considered in a design setting moving forward. This is not a study to find the state of the art, but considers the average engineering professionals work to design products in various industries. Social impact assessments (SIA) and social life cycle assessments (SLCA) are two of the most common processes discussed in the literature to evaluate social impact, both generally and in products. Interestingly, these processes did not arise in any discussion in interviews despite respondents affirming that they do consider social impact in product design. Processes used to predict social impact, rather than simply evaluate, were discussed by the respondents and tended to be developed within the company and often related to industry imposed government regulations.The combined work reported in this thesis is a significant step forward in being able to handle the unwieldy nature of social impact in product design in the larger context of sustainability. Not only do these efforts provide a basis upon which future tools can be developed, they are also immediately useful in providing a basic framework upon which to consider the full spectrum of social impact of products during design.



College and Department

Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology; Mechanical Engineering

Date Submitted


Document Type





Andrew Taylor Pack, social impact, product design, sustainability, sustainable product design