Design plays a hugely dominant role in our lives. From the clothes you are wearing to the device you are reading this on, and the website that hosts it, everything that surrounds us and that we consume, be it product, service or system has been designed by someone.


Considering that 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are determined during the design phase, looking at design is crucial for the way we produce and consume. According to the European Science Hub, Eco-design is defined by the goal of reducing the environmental impact of products, including the energy consumption throughout their entire life cycle. Implementing ethical and sustainable principles from the start is essential in building towards a circular economy, as without looking at that stage we would merely be applying a band-aid without getting to the root cause of an illness.
We’ve all bought cheaply and badly designed products and then been thoroughly disappointed when one month later it lost shape or broke, had to be disposed of and there was no way to even do so sustainably. When something is designed badly it directly affects how it is manufactured, the length of the object’s lifecycle as well as what happens at the end of its lifecycle, usually leading to unsustainable consequences.

Eco-design therefore plays an incredibly important role in moving towards a circular economy. The three key principles to a circular economy, as laid out by the Ellen McArthur foundation, can be directly related back to the blueprint of a product: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

According to the foundation there are four key stages of a circular design process:


1. Understand the user and system you are designing for.

Market research is incredibly important in order to understand if and how your product is needed and where there are gaps in the system that you can solve or design for. This also includes moving away from single-use products and integrating your product into a closed-loop system, which sometimes means rethinking the ‘that’s just the way things are’ motto. The PSS (product/service-system) design model allows you to rethink ownership and rethink the sustainability of the system your product or service sits in. Could your product be rented out instead of sold or if it has to be sold how can you implement a scheme that ensures the product can be fed back into the ecosystem or recycled in an industrial system?


2. Define the design challenge and intention of the new design.

Ask yourself what you are trying to change systematically and then zoom back into your product design at every stage. Keeping the bigger picture in mind will help your product become more sustainable long-term. For instance this could mean looking at product stewardship and taking on the responsibility for the product’s end of life as opposed to shifting that responsibility onto the consumer. Maybe the challenge lies with a resource heavy design and you need to ask yourself how you can dematerialise your product design without losing quality and longevity.


3. Make as many prototypes and variants as possible to test out

and I would even go one step further and ask to test these against a diverse group of people. Ensure that there are no data gaps when testing your product, as you should not only test for longevity but whether it is sustainable in the very different lifestyles of people with a diverse background of any kind. As Caroline Criado Perez uncovers in her bestselling book “Invisible Women” the world is mostly designed for men, leaving women more vulnerable. Not only are systems such street cleaning plans designed to accommodate average male routes from home to work rather than women’s more common routes across neighbourhoods, but even our everyday products aren’t adapted to women. From smartphones largely too big for average female hands to cars designed for men’s seating positions, leaving women 47% more injured than men and according to NHTSA 17% are more likely to die in a car accident. The same applies to sustainable products. For instance the menstrual cup designed to reduce waste is largely designed for women living in first world countries with access to clean water and hygienic facilities, but likely leaves women without at a higher risk of infection, making it in turn unsustainable for them. Designing for equity is a key pillar to eco-design.


4. Release the new design and from the beginning set up feedback loops

so that the product or service can be redesigned according to needs, desires and changing environments. According to The Circular Design Guide you should “design for evolution” and think of your product like a software that can constantly be upgraded. Remanufacture, recyclability, repairability and reusability being key factors at this stage in order to prolong the products longevity whilst retaining its durability and quality. As designer and UNEP Champion of the Earth Leyla Acaroglu , states in her article about eco-design strategies “provisions should [be] made so that there are options for how to maximize its value across its full life cycle and keep materiality in a value flow.”

A major benefit of environmentally responsible design is that of reduced costs occurring from reduced waste disposal costs, penalties and even likely material and production costs. Question ownership, question if you’ve been inclusive enough, question material durability and origin, question resource requirements, question the lifecycle from start to finish and beyond. If your product is sustainable but the system isn’t, use the opportunity to create a truly innovative system designed to be adopted industry-wide for years to come.


Author: Jil Carrara