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Sustainable design and the design process

01 November 2008

Leading companies are increasingly viewing sustainable product design as an important strategic issue. This is partly due to pressures from legislation, but also as a key factor in becoming more competitive and as a way of saving money during manufacturing. Luke Robbins outlines a strategy for achieving sustainable design

Sustainable design can be challenging; knowing when to start, how to consider it and what to take into account. In product design many commercial challenges exist and there are several reasons why companies are not willing to embrace sustainable design. Typically, time and cost constraints have limited progress; commercial effectiveness has traditionally been the main focus, without reflection on social and environmental factors.

However, leading companies are increasingly viewing sustainable product design as an important strategic issue. This is partly due to pressures from legislation, but also as a key factor in becoming more competitive and as a way of saving money during manufacturing. Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) is also an important issue for stakeholders and investors who are becoming more interested in the non-financial performance of companies and brands.

Consumer demand is causing companies to rethink their sustainability policy, with many consumers switching to more sustainable products and brands with a reputation for environmental friendliness. There are also plans for mandatory carbon labelling on products, so consumers can compare the eco values of products. Yet many of the social and environmental impacts that arise from the products people choose are already designed-in long before they reach the end consumer. It is estimated that as much as 75% of the environmental impacts (as well as the costs) that a product throws off throughout its lifetime is determined at the design stage (IDSA, Design: Green 2004,

Until now, sustainable product innovation has mainly involved making incremental changes to existing products through technological improvement. But being sustainable means more than just being environmentally friendly. Social and economic factors must also be fully considered. A balance between the three areas must be achieved for sustainable design to be truly effective.

Sustainable design should be used in deciding how to meet the brief and the client and end users’ needs. The earlier economic, social and environmental issues are considered, the greater the opportunity for reducing environmental impact, reducing costs and increasing profit. In order to apply sustainable design successfully, it must be viewed as an integral part of the design process. It is often considered as an add-on, which is then very difficult to implement or change towards the end the product development. Retro fitting sustainability will always result in compromise.

The sustainable design process
Integrating sustainable design into the whole design process requires significant change, and designers and engineers need to be educated and guided in making the correct decisions. Different projects will require different sustainability strategies, but this can be simplified with sustainable design tools being incorporated into the design process, helping designers to select the strategy that will offer the most benefits.

The first stage of the process is to consider the entire life cycle of the product. This can be done by undertaking a life cycle assessment (LCA), which provides a full understanding of the energy inputs during manufacturing and the carbon output during its lifetime. The knowledge accumulated from the LCA provides an opportunity to make decisions on how to improve products for reduced environmental impact, as well as producing goods that cost less to manufacture.

Help with decision making
Traditionally LCAs have tended to be time-consuming and difficult to perform. With this in mind, the author’s company has produced a system that helps companies to undertake this key step of the process and provide the knowledge to help make sustainable design decisions. Called the LCA Calculator, this free online tool provides a quick and simple way to assess the environmental impact of a product by calculating its energy input and carbon output from cradle to grave (the tool is freely available at

A design manual has also been produced in-house to further integrate sustainable design into the whole design process. This includes sustainable design tools and information, including eco-design checklists, rules of thumb and expert information on various sustainable design strategies. One of its key features is the Design Compass, which can be used to prioritise and balance all the requirements and impacts of the product - economic, social and environmental. It can be used as a comparative tool to examine two similar products, and as a prioritising tool for indicating the areas where the most significant improvements can be made within the product, the production process and for the client business as a whole.

Companies that opt for sustainable products will be able to reap long-term rewards through cost savings and enhanced market position. Sustainable design is an approach that must be applied throughout the design process and by considering environmental, social and economic factors. When designers and engineers take the step to implement a sustainable design process, the benefits soon become apparent.

Luke Robbins is a sustainable design specialist at Industrial Design Consultancy

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