It can also be a straight-forward process when equipped with good information and engaging ideas. In the late eighties, information about eco-design approaches and methods was scant and grossly under-developed.

Environment-related data about materials and production technologies was also lacking. The last decade however has witnessed a massive growth in information about eco-design, its application, its theory and its potential to outgrow clichéd responses to environmental problems.

The resources discussed below provide a useful starting point for anyone interested in developing their eco-design knowledge and vocabulary. Whether you’re interested in the broader theoretical themes around responsible design, policy approaches for stimulating eco-design, or the minutiae of design for recycling guidelines for IT products, there is no shortage of information.

Pioneering work 

For those interested in some of the early theory on responsible design and related manifestations, it’s hard to go past Victor Papanek. The origins of eco-design as we understand it today probably lie somewhere in between the incisive critique of Papanek and the maturing attitudes and actions of industry.

Although other writers argued the case against rampant consumerism, maverick manufacturers, poor architecture and life threatening products (e.g. Neutra, Packard, Nader, Buckminster Fuller), it was Papanek who focused the ethical blowtorch on the industrial design profession.

Papanek’s landmark text, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971), was by far one of the more critical contributions towards highlighting the less successful products created by designers. His critique of the design professions, their clients in industry and the associated educational institutions, was scathing and well supported with real world examples.

The core of his argument was that designers concentrated too much effort on the aesthetic and stylistic aspects of design as opposed to considering the whole product i.e. its function, utility, repairability, affordability, environmental and social consequences.

The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture, Papanek’s sequel, was in many respects an updating of Design for the Real World with an emphasis on the ecological rather than the social.

He also reported on the progress of industry and designers through presenting case studies on how eco-design is being embodied in products and buildings in more recent years. Nigel Whitely in his book, Design for Society, has continued the Papanek tradition of questioning and critiquing the role of designers in an increasingly consumerist society.

Not unlike Papanek’s sequel, Whitely seeks to highlight how design can play a more humane and socially relevant role in meeting the needs of everyday living be it in the first or third world. The problem with both texts is their righteous approach to determining what constitutes good design, bad design, green design, and so on.

A comprehensive and more recent source of case studies and discussion can be found in Sustainable Solutions: Developing Products and Services for the Future. This detailed book describes the policy drivers underlying trends towards sustainable production and consumption as well as strategies and case studies covering eco-product and eco-service development.

Edited by Martin Charter (Director of the Centre for Sustainable Design, UK) and Ursula Tischner (founder and principal of Econcept Consultancy, Germany), they combine with many other specialists from around the world to portray an increasingly sophisticated eco-design movement emerging across government, industry and academia. As a comprehensive, global overview, this is an excellent text. 

There are also several books, guides and manuals covering the practice of eco-design and offering support and direction to designers, engineers and others involved in the product development process.

Some of these have their origins in collaborative industry-academia demonstration programs, while others are authored by experts and advocates. The ongoing development of eco-design tools and ‘how to’ guides will depend heavily on appropriate information design to get the message across in a way that engages the target audience.

Sustainability and the bigger picture

In recent years, two of the most significant and critically acclaimed environmental texts have acknowledged design and innovation as critical areas of human endeavour needed to achieve a sustainable future. In particular Cradle to Cradle, by American architect William McDonough, and German chemist – Michael Braungart, is a landmark book which convincingly outlines a roadmap for locating design as a central solution to our industrial environmental problems.

In a similar fashion, but with a reduced emphasis on the role of design per se, Natural Capitalism also describes and discusses numerous pathways and case studies towards improving the environmental performance of products, services and buildings. Both of these books provide a coherent and robust case for why and how we can achieve an environmentally sustainable future.

Eco-design manuals, handbooks and journals

For those wanting a regular source of authoritative and timely information, the Journal of Sustainable Product Design features well-crafted articles from specialists, academic researchers and educators.

Produced quarterly by Kluwer – a Dutch academic publisher – the magazine’s editor in chief is also Director of the UK-based Centre for Sustainable Design. It is also available on-line by subscription.

Web sites worth a visit

The presence of eco-design information on the web is nothing but staggering. While the quantity is significant, the quality is likely to be questionable or limited in many cases. A simple search returned the following stats:

• Eco-design
34,400 web pages

• Design for Environment
10,600 web pages

• Sustainable Product Design
5,130 web pages

• Sustainable Product Development
2,210 web pages

Of course the extent of overlap and duplication would also be considerable, however as a simple indicator, the body of knowledge available on-line is extensive and growing everyday. 

In Australia, we have several organisations that are working on eco-design and related issues. In particular the Centre for Design at RMIT University has the highest profile and has recently launched its new, revised web site with a view to improving navigation and featuring more current project information, including other non-RMIT resources.

In Sydney, both the EcoDesign Foundation and the Society for Responsible Design, are also conducting projects and outreach activities aimed at raising awareness and action in pursuit of responsible design solutions. Both groups have been active in NSW
over the last decade. 

Corporate web sites 

Often the most instructive examples of how eco-design has been applied in a ‘real world’ context can be found on corporate web sites. Virtually all producers of computers, consumer electronics, office furniture and automobiles will feature their environmental programs and policies on their web sites, usually under ‘About the Company’ or ‘Corporate Information’.

Many of them also provide meaningful descriptions of how, where and why they have applied eco-design or design for environment. With a small amount of straightforward navigation, you should be able to ‘drill-down’ and locate some interesting material that directly connects design and environment.


Listserves provide a useful forum for general discussion about eco-design including the opportunity to post specific questions about materials, products and case studies. Listserves can also feature copious amounts of banter and superficial content so you’ll need to be ruthless in how you participate. 

Two directly relevant listserves that have been operating for several years and are worth trialling are o2 and ECDM. While o2 has its origins in Northern Europe it now has well-established nodes of activity and liaison members around the world including Australia.

ECDM’s source is the University of Windsor, Canada, however like the o2 Listserve, it successfully exploits the Internet with internationally relevant postings and discussion. If anything, ECDM has a stronger engineering design and cleaner production orientation.

We can be pleased with the increased access to, and availability of, eco-design information resources, however the challenge to exploit such knowledge has also grown. Sorting through material and web sites in particular can be daunting on limited project time-frames.

The titles, sites and companies discussed might help shortcut the process of locating suitable information, nevertheless it’s vital to remain judicious about all information and use it with care and rigour.

Readers interested in any specific information not listed above can contact the author... who is currently preparing a comprehensive guide to Australian and global eco-design information resources <>  


The Eco-Design Handbook: a Complete Sourcebook for the Home and Office.
By Alastair Fuad-Luke, 2002, Thames
and Hudson, London.

Design + Environment: A Global Guide to Designing Greener Goods.
By Helen Lewis, John Gertsakis, Tim Grant, Nicola Morelli, and Andrew Sweatman, 2002, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield.

Sustainable Solutions: Developing Products and Services for the Future.
Contributing editors, Martin Charter
and Ursula Tischner, 2001, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield

Environmental Information for Industrial Designers. By Conny Bakker, 1995, self-published, Rotterdam. 

The Green Imperative – Ecology & Ethics in Design and Architecture. By Victor Papanek, 1995, Thames & Hudson, London.

Design for Society. By Nigel Whitely, 1993, Reaktion Books, London.

Design for the Real World – Human Ecology and Social Change.
By Victor Papanek, 1971, Pantheon, New York

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. By William McDonough and Michael Braungart, 2002, North Point Press

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. By Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, 1999, Little, Brown and Company, Boston


Journal for Sustainable Product Design

Electrical and Electronic Practical EcoDesign Guide
By Julio Rodrigo, Francesca Castells
and Juan Carlos Alonso, 2002, University Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain.

Environmentally Oriented Product Design: A Guide for Companies in the Electrical and Electronics Industry
By Ann Kärnä, 1998, Federation of Finnish Electrical and Electronics Industry, Helsinki

A Guide to EcoReDesignTM: Good Design, Better Business, Cleaner World
By John Gertsakis, Helen Lewis and Chris Ryan, 1997, Centre for Design at RMIT, Melbourne

EcoDesign: A Promising Approach
to Sustainable Production and Consumption. By Han Brezet and Carolien van Hemel, 1997, United Nations Environment Programme, Paris

Handbook for Design of Environmentally Compatible Electronic Products: An Aid for Designers. By Carl Gunnar Bergendahl, Per Hedemalm and Tomas Segerberg, 1995, Swedish Institute of Production Engineering Research, Göteborg


Centre for Design at RMIT University

Centre for Sustainable Design

McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry

Design for Environment Guide

Greener by Design

EcoDesign Foundation

O2 Global Network for Sustainable Design

Society for Responsible Design

Philips –

Sony – 

Nokia –

Ericsson –

HP –

Knoll –

Herman Miller –


Honda –


Environmentally Conscious Design
and Manufacturing (ECDM) 


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