Today’s product designers have a big responsibility. Their efforts determine how a product works, as well as how it is manufactured, used, disassembled and recycled or disposed of. Product designers who take sustainability seriously must consider a product’s value chain – the range of activities needed to create it – as well as the product’s full life cycle.
Ecodesign is an approach that considers the environmental aspects of each phase of product development, as well as the product’s use and disposal. It aims to balance a product’s economic requirements with the need to minimize the environmental impact of the product throughout its life cycle. That’s no easy task.
Many options create a mighty challenge.
To create a product with a smaller environmental footprint, a designer might start with a more ecologically friendly design. Alternatively, the designer could replace a particular product with a multi-use product that expands its life cycle. Or eliminate the product in favor of a service that meets the same need.
A product designer must examine the product, its value chain and full life cycle from every angle. This comprehensive approach yields many options. Should the designer reduce the quantity of materials used to make the product? Choose different materials? Revise the production or distribution process? Create a product with a longer life? There’s much to consider, especially when factoring in the economic implications of each option. And remember – product designers are not experts in sustainability. How do they make smart design choices that also address pressing environmental concerns?
The Value of the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
Product design strategies have qualitative and quantitative elements, and designers need facts to execute their strategies in a manner that’s environmentally sound. They need a scientific approach for what is often a highly creative process. This is where the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) helps.
The LCA analyzes the entire life cycle of a product or service. The assessment covers the production, distribution, use and end-of-life phases to determine a product’s or service’s potential environmental impacts. Upstream and downstream elements linked to these phases are also evaluated. (A supplier is an example of an upstream element; waste management is an example of a downstream component.)
Ecodesigners don’t need to be LCA experts, but they certainly benefit from incorporating LCA expertise into their designs. LCA software and LCA databases can help them make design decisions that meet the demands of manufacturers, consumers and regulators.
Making Environmental Sustainability a Top Priority
With ESG and sustainability playing a key role in Fater’s corporate values, the company aims to be a reference point for environmental sustainability.
Laundry Detergent and LCA at Work
Recently, the marketing department of a laundry detergent manufacturer proposed changes to help position the detergent as a more environmentally friendly option. The team suggested changing the product’s packaging and using a vegetable-based composition for the detergent. But the team needed to validate its suggestions with scientific data.
Use of the right data and collaboration with the company’s R & D team led the marketing team to its conclusion: The vegetable-based composition and packaging changes they proposed would not be effective. Without access to LCA software and databases, it would have been hard for the team to understand the real consequences of their initial choices – choices they thought would lead to a more sustainable product.
Sometimes it’s the product development process or product components that interfere with product sustainability. But the human element that’s introduced in the use phase and in a product’s disposal is an equally important factor to consider in product sustainability.
Man and Machine: Understanding the Critical Human Element
The common lawn mower can help us understand the role of the human element in ecodesign. In this example, product designers were reengineering a lawn mower and applied a generic ecodesign strategy to achieve their environmental objectives. They initially believed that reducing the weight of the machine would help. They also favored reducing the energy required in the product’s use phase and improving product disassembly. But they didn’t consider the entire life cycle of the product.
Without an appreciation for a product’s full life cycle, designers can overlook the feature that’s most in need of attention and miss a critical design opportunity. In the case of the lawnmower, the biggest hot spot – the aspect of its design or use that poses the greatest environmental threat – came from the grass clippings left behind after the machine’s use.
Grass clippings typically end up in solid waste landfills, and over time, these clippings degrade and release methane (CH₄) – a gas more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is estimated to have a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 28 – 36 over 100 years. In the lawnmower example, the change that’s needed most is a change in user behavior. And this presents a huge challenge for the ecodesign approach.
Ecodesign professionals are driven by the pressure and the desire to create products and services that do less harm to our environment. But consumers of these products and services must be ready and willing to use them.
Are consumers ready to change?
Designers can change a product or a process to reduce its environmental impact. They can convert a product into a service, for instance. But if the market isn’t ready, the redesign effort will not yield results. The social feasibility must be considered: Will consumers appreciate the need for a more eco-friendly design? Will they buy the product? Will they use it correctly? What are the consequences of consumer acceptance and use of an eco-friendlier product? Surprisingly, the consequences are not always positive.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Sometimes ecodesign victories are offset by unintended consequences, and one type of negative consequence is the rebound effect. To understand it, let’s consider the electric vehicle. The proud owner is now buying less fuel (score a few points for the environment!) and saving some money. What will the consumer do with the extra disposable income? What if they spend those savings on round-trip flights? If they do, that environmental win will be lost.
Ecodesign professionals can’t always foresee these behaviors. Educating and encouraging change among consumers is a responsibility that belongs to many, and it goes hand in hand with ecodesign. For the ecodesigner’s labor to bear fruit, consumers must be ready for the new or re-designed products and services. But consumers must also have a broader appreciation for their own impact on the environment, so their positive actions are not diminished by other harmful habits and activities. Today’s product designers have a big responsibility. And so do consumers.