The decisions made in the product planning and design stages largely determine both the product’s costs and its environmental impact. The players involved in the product development process can exert their influence on every phase of its value creation and material life cycle and take targeted steps to foster environmentally just innovations. The purpose of ecodesign is to find environmentally just solutions through integrated life cycle assessment of how to reduce the overall environmental impact of a product. It thus complements the classical product development requirements of functionality, safety, ergonomics and cost-benefit ratio with environmental friendliness. Ecodesign is an ambitious, comprehensive aim of sustainable corporate governance.
Environmentally friendly product design calls for both quantitative and qualitative evaluation standards and supportive instruments, for which there is a whole range of check lists, manuals and software solutions based on the life cycle assessment method. International, European and German standardization authorities have in the meantime also issued standards and guidelines which offer guidance on the inclusion of environmental aspects in product planning and development. The award criteria for ecolabels like the Blue Angel also provide orientation for the ecological design of a whole range of products.
The European Commission's Ecodesign Directive sets out the first ever minimum mandatory requirements for specific product groups. The aim of the Directive is to implement ecodesign standards to improve the environmental performance of energy-using products throughout their entire life cycle.
Since 2012, the German Federal Ministry for Environment and the German Environment Agency have held the annual Federal Ecodesign Award competition in order to raise public awareness of ecodesign and to promote innovations. The German Federal Ecodesign Award is the first and only prize of the Federal Government which honours products, services and concepts which are both innovative and meet the highest quality standards in terms of their environmental and design aspects. The competition is aimed at companies of all sizes in all sectors as well as at designers and students.
The criteria matrix which was developed for the Ecodesign Award provides orientation for both the contestants and the jurors and also serves as a tool in the everyday design process.
Guidelines of product ecodesign
The following strategies are part of an effective reduction of the environmental impacts and consumption of resources ("ecological rucksacks") which are caused by a product throughout its life cycle:
- Reduction of energy and raw material demand throughout the entire product life cycle;
- Greater use of renewable raw materials, in consideration of their availability and regeneration rate and of the associated environmental impact, as compared to the use of non-renewable materials;
- Increase of product usability and durability and optimization of use (storage life, ease of maintenance, adaptability, function enhancement and multifunctionality);
- Strengthening of reusability and improvement of environmentally sound recovery (reuse and recycling of products and product parts, recyclable design, reduction of material losses);
- Minimization of product emissions during their life cycle (hazardous substances, radiation, noise, etc.) to the technically unavoidable level or levels which are reasonable in terms of environment and health;
- Reduction or substitution of substances harmful to the environment and health as well as development of materials with properties which do not harm environment and health.
The new edition of the "What is Ecodesign?" publication by the German Environment Agency is another building block which supports ecodesign by offering expertise and practical advice. It serves as a guide for designers and other ecodesign practitioners. Also issued as an e-book, the publication addresses ecological product design and other life cycle thinking issues. It is aimed at everyone interested in contemporary design who has an eye on both design and environmental protection.