Skill Hacks

Will eco-design save the world?

Spoiler alert: no, eco-design won't save the world, but it can contribute to it by drastically reducing the impact of the goods we consume.

If you've ever bought a certified organic cotton t-shirt made in Portugal, or bought a phone from BackMarket, you're already using eco-design, perhaps without realizing it. 

What's more, more and more start-ups are springing up offering so-called "responsible" products, but what does that actually mean?

Well, some of them are brands that have taken care to follow an eco-design approach to the manufacture of their products, by researching new materials and processes, for example. For others, the adjective "responsible" is just a marketing argument, a varnish, with no supporting evidence...

So how is eco-design going to save the world? Is it just a trend or a real issue for the future?

What is eco-design?

If we had to give a definition, eco-design is a continuous process aimed at integrating environmental protection right from the design stage of goods or services. It is one of the pillars of the circular economy. 

In other words, instead of creating a product with the aim of reducing costs, we ask ourselves "how can I minimize the negative effects of my product on the environment? 

When you consider that 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage, you realize that there's a lot of work to be done. 

This means rethinking the whole way a product is manufactured, because we need to reduce the environmental impact of products throughout their life cycle: extraction of raw materials, production, distribution, use and end of life... 

We can even eco-design a service. Take the case of a travel agency. You can offer a key eco-trip: giving preference to the train, avoiding jetskiing or helicopter tours, for example?

Please note that eco-design is not an end in itself. It's a process of continuous improvement designed to reduce impact as we go along. It therefore calls on our creativity and our ability to innovate. In fact, we're talking more and more about eco-innovation, which is "a form of innovation aimed at achieving progress towards the goal of sustainable development through reduced environmental impact, greater resilience to environmental pressures, or more efficient and responsible use of natural resources".

So we're going to rethink usage, and we can go for a system of services instead of a purely product approach (e.g.: economy of functionality). For example, when you know that a tent is used for an average of one week a year, the solution might well be to rent it out, don't you think?

An example: how the Forclaz brand eco-designed a range of hiking products?

Let's take a concrete example: Decathlon's Forclaz sports brand.

Decathlon's teams aimed to considerably reduce the impact of a range of hiking products. Their focus for this project was on manufacturing energy, dyeing, materials, durability (long life) and repairability. 

A big challenge when you consider that the textile industry is the second most polluting... Not least because of the massive use of synthetic fibers derived from petroleum. So how did they go about the project?

What solutions have they found?

  • They chose to work with countries with a lower carbon mix, such as Portugal (bye bye "Made in China"!).
  • They worked on new manufacturing processes, notably using recycled materials (e.g. wool, cotton, etc.).
  • They worked with their own suppliers to achieve a less carbon-intensive mix (eco-design is a team effort!).
  • They decided to produce low volumes to test their product and avoid this additional constraint.
  • They didn't impose any price constraints, but still managed to offer the sustainable hiking bag for around a hundred euros.

What was the result?

After 2 years of research, they came up with a range including : 

  • The parka: They cut manufacturing costs by offering a model with very few seams. This enabled them to relocate manufacturing to France and keep prices down. Manufacturing took place in Portugal. The result is a parka that generates 11% less CO2 (compared to a similar product designed in Asia without any eco-design action).
  • The hoodie: They used recycled wool that had already been dyed, thus avoiding the use of dyes, which are often highly polluting (-73% CO2).
  • Pants: They used a mix of recycled cotton and polyester (-80% CO2).
  • Hiking bag: They also used pre-dyed recycled fibers and a different design. For pattern-making, pattern-makers reduced the number of pieces from 54 to 7, simplifying product assembly (-64% CO2).

What were the keys to the success of the Forclaz project? 

The entire project team took ownership of the project from the outset, and the constraints were shared with all the trades involved, not just the design engineer. This is important, because eco-design implies making compromises (in terms of design, technicality, etc.). 

  • They were able to think differently, to take a step aside and get back to basics. 
  • They turned constraints into opportunities.

3 examples of eco-design professions

Now that you've mastered the concept of eco-design, here are 3 examples of key careers you can pursue if you're interested in the subject.

Eco-designer (or eco-design engineer) 

The eco-design engineer contributes to product design by taking into account the environmental and/or social impact of products throughout their entire life cycle (from cradle to grave). Their role is to reduce the pollution caused by consumer products and to participate in the technological and technical choice of materials.

  • The eco-designer's main missions are :
  • Analyze needs and define the new expectations of customers and consumers (who are increasingly demanding).
  • Manage environmental assessments
  • Find new processes and new products. A true chemist! 
  • Find new solutions while respecting quality, cost and deadline requirements. 
  • Maintain a technical and regulatory watch on the sector's technologies, materials and innovative processes;
  • Provide technical expertise;

In short, the eco-designer is at the crossroads between an artist and a chemist!

Green IT Consultant 

Eco-design also applies to digital products. We can create a site or an application by respecting certain rules that can reduce their impact (e.g.: reducing the size of images or the number of videos). That's why we're seeing the emergence of the Green IT Consultant profession. 

Green IT consultants advise companies on how to achieve greater energy efficiency and performance. They guide customers towards a more responsible digital environment. His or her main missions are :

  • Develop plans and procedures to improve efficiency and reduce energy costs.
  • Train company staff in the principles of energy efficiency and the tools needed to achieve it.
  • Monitor and keep abreast of technological developments to adapt solutions to company environments.
  • Develop strategies to optimize the performance of IT systems.
  • Advise and support companies in the integration of environmentally-friendly products, services and technologies.
  • Participate in the definition and implementation of principles and best practices governing sustainable development, energy efficiency and green technologies.
  • Support the deployment and implementation of energy management systems.
  • Identify and analyze opportunities to reduce costs related to the use of IT systems.
  • Monitor the company's progress in terms of sustainable development and reducing energy consumption.

LCA engineer

The LCA engineer's mission is to manage Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) projects and propose alternative solutions as part of an eco-design project, notably by verifying technical feasibility! 

The main missions of the LCA Engineer are :

  • Manage environmental assessments of products or processes;
  • Participate in the design and manufacturing stages, in collaboration with engineers and technicians from the departments concerned;
  • Contribute to technological and technical choices of materials to ensure product maintenance and recycling;
  • Lead Research & Development (R&D) projects with an ecological focus;
  • Analyze life cycles and provide studies and advice on ecological design, as part of a continuous improvement process;
  • Keep abreast of techniques, current regulations and consumer demands for eco-citizenship;

How can I learn about eco-design?

Now that you've understood the basics of eco-design and the professions that use it, you can go even further and get trained! 

The Indigo school offers an eco-design training course. This 100% online, 15-hour course is designed for people who want to integrate the environment into their product and service design processes and develop a competitive edge in the job market!

👉 Learn more about "Eco-conception" training at Indigo School

Further information

👉 Find a purpose-driven job

Photo credit: Cristina Gottardi for Unsplash

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