Eco-design and sustainable product development are tools and strategies now well embedded in the vocabulary of executives and product development teams around the world. Global companies with a particularly well-developed program of eco-design activity include:

• Herman Miller and Wilkhahn in commercial furniture

• Ericsson and Nokia in mobile telecommunications

• Philips and Sony in consumer electronics

• Daimler Benz and Toyota in automobiles

• Patagonia and REI in technical outdoor recreational equipment

• Electrolux, Whirlpool and Miele in major domestic appliances

While only a sample, these companies are developing an acute sense of where and how their products sit in the global cycle of production and consumption. They are also addressing the diverse range of social, ecological and economic issues that are intimately linked to proliferating products, increased affordability and materialistic ideologies.

Some of these companies have moved beyond interpreting eco-design as simply specifying recycled plastic content or improving energy efficiency. They are exploring future survival and profitability through radical new business strategies underpinned by miniaturisation, dematerialisation and smart materials.

A growing number of brand owners are seeing the longer-term value of designing products and services that are environmentally affirmative, yet socially desirable and functionally superior.

Smart and sensitive design

Services are replacing products, leasing is an option over purchase, and the smart use of IT and communications is being adopted as part of the total product solution.

Among whitegoods producers, Miele has pioneered ‘update’ functions and services as a way of optimising performance, maximising product durability and thus minimising environmental impacts related to global warming, emissions to water and solid waste.

For example, the Miele technician arrives at your home to reprogram an information intensive electronic dishwasher so as to exploit the lower wash temperatures associated with evolving enzyme-based detergents.

Fuji Xerox and Interface are breaking new territory with business models based on product leasing. Why should larger corporates and institutions buy photocopiers or carpet, when the original producers can retain ownership and ensure effective environmental management of the total product life-cycle?

Similarly, companies such as Nokia and Ericsson are redefining the meaning of miniaturisation and mobility with all of the accompanying benefits of lead free solders and increased materials efficiency. 

A range of new material types is also emerging with distinct environmental potential. Whether biodegradable, recycled, recyclable or intelligent, the diversity of advanced materials is providing new design possibilities across many product categories from automobiles and furniture through to packaging and electronics.

Product life cycles

One of the most significant environmental developments in recent years has been the emergence of a life cycle approach to product development.

A cradle to grave view of products can provide a more holistic and comprehensive method of identifying and addressing environmental values in manufactured goods. An extension of this approach has been the concept of ‘product stewardship’.

Product stewardship can be defined as a pro-active strategy aimed at managing and minimising the life cycle impacts of products. It is sometimes referred to as ‘environmental stewardship’, with additional variations including ‘extended producer responsibility’ and ‘shared product responsibility’.

In its most simple form it is often referred to as ‘product take-back’. Regardless of the terminology, the concept of companies managing the product life cycles beyond the point of sale and warranty represents a key driver in eco-design.

While the impact of implementing a product stewardship service within a company may seem onerous at first, the business benefits can outweigh any start up costs. 

One of the most innovative Australian approaches to product stewardship has been the Mobile Phone Industry Recycling Program. Developed by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), this industryled model represents a significant precedent.

Not only does the program offer a full take-back and recycling service at no direct cost to consumers, it is also funded by AMTA’s member companies (e.g. Nokia, Ericsson, Philips, Panasonic, NEC).

The AMTA program was developed on a voluntary basis, however the threat of increasing government interest and concern about how and where rechargeable, nickel cadmium batteries were being disposed of was undoubtedly a driver for industry action.

The cost of administering the recovery and recycling scheme is covered by a levy on the sale of new mobile phones from phone producers and carriers involved in the Program. AMTA have now partnered up with Planet Ark to further promote the mobile phone recycling scheme to the Australian public.

From a design perspective, the reality of companies taking their own products back at end-of-life, presents a major challenge in how products are conceived in the first place. Will hazardous components and non-recyclable materials continue to feature in products if companies remain responsible for the full life cycle from cradle to grave?

Product stewardship is likely to be the single most influential driver of improved environmental performance over the coming decade both internationally and in Australia.

The challenge continues

The evolution of an Australian design ethic that is environmentally sensitive and exciting while also commercially successful depends on many factors, least of all the capabilities of Australian designers and manufacturers.

Australia has exceptional designers, engineers and applied technologists. Smart marketers are also widely available. The missing link is very much related to limited and ill-defined policy formulation that integrates environment and industry policy. In simple terms, design is not well understood by many bureaucrats, let alone the significance of sustainable design.

While some work was conducted and funded during the 90s at a Commonwealth level, it is State Government agencies and departments such as EcoRecycle Victoria, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Victoria and the Department of State and Regional Development that have taken the lead to some extent.

Much still remains to be done however, especially in the move toward sustainable production and consumption. 

The perennial challenge is about balancing the creation of functional and desirable products that meet the genuine needs of today’s societies without compromising the needs of future generations.

Not even the most comprehensive eco-design checklist, stringent regulation or outspoken eco-industrialist can overcome the influence of fashion and the quest for materialistic goals. Design is one of the few human endeavours in a position to overcome the challenge in a productive and exciting way.

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