Recycled earrings

Made for life

Adopting a sustainable approach to the design of products will be crucial if manufacturing is to become a greener process.

Describing yourself as an 'eco-designer' could be a risky strategy. You'd be projecting yourself not only as a trendy media type but also one who intends to save the planet.

However, if you are an eco-designer, don't despair: even the dry, fusty old European Commission (EC) recognises the existence of, and attaches great importance to, eco-design.

A European directive known as EuP is being implemented this year with the primary purpose of putting eco-design at the forefront of manufacturing. The new rules on 'energy-using products' will require manufacturers of a range of electrical products to design them for low-energy consumption.

According to some campaigners for greener products, EuP will be a step-change in industrial design, because it will shift the focus from end-of-life recycling towards the whole lifecycle.

This is a necessary step to push through a greener agenda in industrial design, says Rob Holdway of eco-design group Giraffe Innovation. "Design needs to be integrated into upfront creativity," he says. "At the moment the environmental aspects are still largely on the [design] margins."

He believes that industrial designers are lagging behind the scientific community when it comes to sustainability.

Manufacturers of electrical products in particular may disagree and point to the recent raft of European directives. These include that wonderful acronym 'WEEE', which deals with the recycling and disposal of electrical and electronic goods; 'RoHS', which bans the use of certain substances in these goods; and 'REACH', which controls the use of a range of chemicals in products.

One thing that all these measures have in common is that they place environmental responsibilities firmly on the shoulders of the product producers.

However, these and other similar new regulations are focused on the promotion of recycling or on dealing with 'hazardous' substances. Their reach is not from 'cradle to grave'. According to campaigners, EuP aims to go further by taking a holistic approach to the overall environmental impact of the entire lifecycle of products. The EC's view seems to be that, since this impact is determined at the design stage, companies should take action at this phase of product development.

Regulations

"Action should be taken during the design phase of EuPs since it appears that pollution caused during the product's lifecycle is determined at this stage, and most of the costs involved are committed then," the EuP directive states.

But can industrial designers really take on the heavy responsibility of this laudable set of regulations?

David Kester, head of the UK Design Council which recently hosted a conference on eco-design, says sustainability has tended to be marginalised by industrial designers.

"Good design must be and is sustainable design," he insists. "Sustainability can't be something that sits as an annexe on the side."

Leigh Holloway, head of consultancy eco3, agrees: "Sustainable design should become part of the normal design process. But most investment so far has been into carbon and energy reduction, not sustainable design."

He adds: "Europe has been the global focus of cleaner technology but we are still reactive. There is no step-change [yet] of making products that don't cause environmental problems."

Holloway does believe, however, that EuP and the surge in the cost of energy and materials will be strong drivers for eco-design in industry. "If [companies] don't look at sustainable design and resource efficiency [together], their profits will disappear."

However, the shift to sustainable design may require longer product development processes, as well as investment in terms of staff time and possibly design tools. But, he insists, companies should focus on long-term savings rather than upfront costs.

As Ben Bush, director of online community design-talks.com, puts it: "The fact is that going green makes sound business sense - not only can you play on your environmental credentials when marketing to an increasingly conscientious customer base, it also turns out that many of the approaches to sustainability, such as minimising waste and making the most of material resources, actually serve to increase profits as well."

But Dr Tracy Bhamra, reader in sustainable design at Loughbrough University, UK, points out that, while there are examples of small and large companies with a commitment to eco-design, most are far from considering the whole product lifecycle at the design phase.

"The knowledge of companies around sustainable design is still quite limited. It often comes down to whether there is motivated leadership," Bhamra says.

There are some interesting areas of joint academic and industrial research, she adds, such as on increasing product durability, developing tools for product design and assessment, and 'reverse manufacturing', which involves remanufacturing used products. But even those companies that are taking on board sustainable design are unlikely to want to put their work in the public domain, for obvious commercial reasons.

One UK advisory body that aims to demonstrate the business benefits of green design is the Envirowise, which is funded by central government. Its website offers examples of design concepts ranging from the Electrolux waterless washing machine to the Ecolean compostable milk carton.

One example that has moved beyond the concept stage is the use, by British company Lush Toiletries, of popcorn to protect fragile items sent in the post.

Envirowise has also worked with confectionary group Mars to develop a 'design eco-indicator' for product packaging. This online tool, which is due to be made generally available later this year, offers analytical spreadsheets for assessing the carbon footprint of packaging designs, with a view to minimising this footprint.

Eco-packaging

However, eco-packaging is itself a good illustration of the complexities of eco-design, according to some experts. For example, one of the great hopes of packaging, bio-plastics that are corn-based, appear to be not so green as they involve harmful gas emissions, according to the Guardian newspaper. This example also shows how the media have focused on sustainable packaging at the expense of the 'cradle to grave' approach that addresses the whole lifecycle of a product to try to assess its actual carbon footprint.

Perhaps a key way of bringing about this whole-lifecycle approach for the various agents involved in the process is to apply carrots and sticks to each of them - by means of a mixture of statutory and voluntary regulation. Some eco-design campaigners argue that the best way to achieve this is to hit companies and consumers in their pockets through punitive taxes, for example.

New standards

Another way is to establish voluntary standards and kitemarks for sustainable design and production. The UK body, BSI British Standards, is currently working on a new set of standards, PAS 2050, which it says will provide a "specification for the assessment of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of goods and services".

This work is still at an early stage, and BSI already has a host of existing standards for eco-design, eco-packaging and lifecycle assessment. However, pessimists might point out that these current standards have yet to make any significant impact, and it remains to be seen whether voluntary codes such as PAS 2050 will lead to the sea-change that green campaigners say is needed.

The main challenge for eco-designers is, perhaps, the apparent lack of interest in cradle-to-grave sustainability by manufacturers large and small. If a company is not prepared to put green design at the forefront of its product strategy, there will be little incentive for either design contractors or inhouse teams to pursue eco-design in the first place.

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