Eco-design explained

Less than 1% of new products have sustainability as a design parameter. The eco-design approach together with the market demand is changing the way new products are designed.

According to a McKinsey survey, more than 25% of total revenue and profits across industries come from the launch of new products. Still, less than 1% of new products have sustainability as a design parameter. The eco-design approach together with the market demand and the following regulations are changing the way new products are designed. What eco-design really means, why doing it at scale is still a challenge for many enterprises and why it is an important concept for companies to stay relevant in today’s and tomorrow’s market will be explained in this article.  

What is eco-design?

In short, eco-design is an approach to designing products and services while considering environmental impact in every phase of the development and the life of the product. The aim is to reduce the environmental impacts through a product’s life cycle.  

Why is this already important while a product is designed? The stats tell us, that 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are defined in the design phase (Source: Joint research center, EU science hub). The design phase of a product is therefore the first and most necessary stage to successfully get more sustainable and circular goods into the world.  

Eco-design and the circular economy

Eco-design goes hand in hand with the circular lifecycle. It tries to avoid designing products that get discarded after only one use and have no further benefit after their end of life. The circular economy describes exactly that. In the ideal circular lifecycle, the end of life of products is considered the start of a new one, while the product’s entire lifecycle and its further uses were already taken into account during their creation. 

The EU eco-design directive

But eco-design is not only an approach to product design. In the EU there is an eco-design directive that sets mandatory ecological requirements for energy-using and energy-related products that are sold in the member states. Currently, it covers more than 40 product groups that are responsible for around 40% of all EU greenhouse gas emissions.  

Now the European Commission (EC) is discussing an expansion of the eco-design directive. The new directive is supposed to abandon product limitations and opens the door to the regulation of a wide range of additional product categories.  

The proposed directive is called the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) and is a centerpiece of the European Green Deal. In its current version, it would establish a new framework for product design, reporting, and labeling requirements. While the primary aim of the eco-design directive was to reduce energy use, other factors like materials use, water use, polluting emissions, waste issues, and recyclability now come into consideration. The directive involves all companies that manufacture, import, distribute or sell products in the European Union. Several non-EU countries (USA, Australia, Brazil, China, and Japan) have legislation like the EU’s eco-design and energy labeling directives.   

Eco-design principles

When eco-design is applied the sustainability goal is not always the same. While some products might be especially suitable for a design that lasts a lifetime, others are more suited to be designed to be disassembled, reused, or dematerialized. Overall, the strategies aim at extending or closing the lifecycle of products. Here are some examples of environmental considerations of eco-design:  

 

  • Materials with less environmental impact  
  • Fewer resources during the manufacturing process  
  • Less pollution and waste  
  • Products cause less waste and pollution being used  
  • Easier reuse and recycling  

Eco-design applied

In a cross-industry survey done by McKinsey in 2015, they investigated which launch capabilities correlate with success. The single most important driver behind successful commercial launches was team collaboration. This is especially true for eco-design but is hard to achieve. Different functions working with different reporting structures and incentives are responsible for different elements of the product.   

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) has proven to also be a difficult task for teams to overlook. The LCA is needed to understand how a product impacts the environment at each stage of its life cycle. It can therefore be used to understand which aspects of a product are specifically damaging to the environment. Why is this so important, but difficult? An analysis of the life cycle might show that one stage of a product’s life cycle is particularly harmful to the environment. Using a different material could lower the harm but increase the environmental effects later in the product lifetime.  

Eco-design is therefore only feasible when designers have data about the sustainability of their product, but also about its compliance, should costing, environmental, health, and safety criteria. A successful workaround in-between all teams can only be provided by integrating all the data. Software, like Makersite, is not only able to produce LCAs in minutes instead of months but also supports decision making with clear and actionable insights considering multiple criteria (e.g., carbon, water, etc.) and perspectives (market segments, stakeholders, etc.) simultaneously, the so-called MCDA.

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