When thinking about eco-design, many people immediately think of recycled tyres, objects made from bottles or products made of seeds, and, while these are some examples, eco-design goes much deeper than this. To understand it, it is necessary to realise that objects move and are part of a system that exists to meet human needs; that they don’t just appear from nowhere and disappear when discarded.
All products, activities and services have a lifecycle which begins with obtaining raw materials, and moves through manufacture, distribution, use, disposal, recycling, re-using or eventually decomposition, and the environmental impact, or the pollution produced by these objects is a factor at each of these stages.
These environmental impacts are unique to each product. When we analyse an individual product lifecycle we might find that some contaminate more than others, perhaps because of the materials used, the way they are produced, the distance or difficulty of transportation, the energy used, their lifespan, how they are discarded, if they can be recycled, etc.
This lifecycle analysis is where eco-design strategies come in, which intend to counteract these negative impacts. These strategies include: selection of materials (environmentally friendly, biodegradable, recyclable, etc.), reduction of materials, modular design to limit waste, reduction of manufacturing processes, flat-pack or stackable products to maximise transport space, etc. All these strategies are applied from the beginning of the design process so that these products are born ecological, reducing and neutralising negative impacts or even benefitting the environment.
For a complete system analysis, in addition to the environmental impact, we must also consider the client's requirements, market demand, price, location restrictions, technology, processes and materials available, as well as social factors. The latter is generally addressed in strategies such as fair trade, adequate working conditions, emblems for socially responsible companies, programmes such as Great Place to Work, inclusion of disabled people, and development of local and marginalised communities. Some aspects do not impact on the product design, but they do make up part of the system.
In this way we can understand the existence of certain ecological products, such as biodegradable nappies, organic fruit, waterless urinals, hybrid cars, solar heaters, certified wood, eco-tourism, etc. Each one has a different ecological strategy which reduces the environmental impact at a specific stage of its lifecycle.
Eco-design is an ethical and moral design practice, in which environmental and social factors carry the same weight as economical ones. Thus we can comprehensively meet customer requirements and market demand, while avoiding negative environmental impacts and promoting social and economic development.
Every single object, service and activity that we develop can be eco-designed, because they all have some impact on the environment. This is no easy task, given that there are still many obstacles when developing an ecological project. These can arise in numerous ways, and do not always depend on the specific project, but on external factors that can affect or limit the design scope on the product.
Once I asked a wood supplier if their pine was certified, meaning from a sustainable source, and he replied "I certify that it's pine wood"; the supplier had no idea what I meant.
Some time ago I was asked "Is this ecology thing just a trend?" Reflecting upon eco-design and its importance, I have to say yes, it's a trend that we must take advantage of in order to create change now, given that in a few years it will be compulsory. Our resources are running out, environmental degradation is on the rise, new laws will prohibit damaging materials and emissions and call for control of toxic waste, and only the companies which see the preservation of the environment as a business opportunity will ensure their permanence in the market.