How eco-design earned its place in the corporate world

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Natacha Gondran, Mines Saint-Étienne – Institut Mines-Télécom

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the 1970s, regulations were introduced to require companies to prevent industrial pollution. Examples include the Clean Air Act (1970) in the United States and legislation on facilities classified for the protection of the environment in France (1976).

Since then, awareness has grown about the impacts industry has on the environment, and companies’ strategic interest in reducing them has also increased. Beginning in the mid-90s, some companies have established approaches for controlling these impacts. ISO 14001 was the first standard on environmental management systems, which appeared in 1996.

At the same time, “global” ecological issues (climate change, depletion of the ozone layer and biodiversity) started to draw more attention. We came to understand, for example, that the greenhouse gas emissions generated at a particular time and place would continue to have an impact for decades to come, and they are not limited by borders! Preserving the quality of the local environment is no longer sufficient: these global problems require international negotiations between states, like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which COP21 was organized in Paris at the end of 2015.

Considering the upstream and downstream impacts

Alongside this globalization of environmental issues came the globalization of supply chains. Production activities, which generate the most significant environmental impacts, were often relocated to southern hemisphere countries.

Most products that are sold today involve businesses located all over the world. While the amount of direct emissions (of greenhouse gases, for example) generated in certain countries, like France, has stabilized, their ecological or carbon footprint – an indicator that takes into account all the emissions associated with the final consumption of a country’s population – has generally continued to increase.

This means that a company that wants to reduce its impacts on the environment can no longer do so simply by controlling the direct environmental impacts generated on its industrial site. It must also consider both the upstream (supply chain) and downstream (end-of-life) effects of its products.

European regulation encourages this approach within the framework of its Integrated Product Policy (IPP), which is aimed at “promoting the development of a market for greener products and, ultimately, stimulating public discussion on this topic.”

Therefore, European Directive 2009/125/EC establishes requirements for the eco-design of products related to energy (for example in terms of maximum energy consumption or of minimum amounts of recycled materials to be used in the manufacturing).

In addition, European Directive 2008/98/EC on waste introduced the principle of  Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which aims to “require producers, importers and distributors of these products or elements and materials used in their production to be responsible for or to contribute to eliminating the resulting waste.”

This principle aims to support the design and the manufacture of products based on processes that facilitate their repair, reuse, disassembly or recycling, with the goal of achieving greater efficiency in the use of natural resources. It applies to electrical and electronic equipment in the framework of Directive 2012/19/EU, which makes the producers of these devices responsible for recycling and disposing of the resulting waste.

Considering the product’s end-of-life

Eco-design is a concrete solution that companies can implement to prevent the transfer of impacts from one life-cycle phase to the next, or between different environmental impacts.

It is based on a multi-criteria (taking different categories of environmental impacts into account) and multi-actor approach (taking into account a product’s different life-cycle phases).

Eco-design is defined by Standard NF X 30-264 as the “systematic integration of environmental aspects starting with the design phase and product development (goods and services, systems), aimed at reducing negative environmental impacts throughout their entire life cycle for an equivalent or superior benefit. This approach, which begins upstream with preparation for the design process, aims to find the best balance between the environmental, social, technical and economic requirements for product design and development.”

It is based on the concept of life cycle, which, beyond the traditional design phases of manufacturing and intended use, takes into account the aspects related to the end of the product’s life: facilitating the processes of disassembly, shredding, sorting, recovery, etc.

An eco-design approach can even involve establishing new business models: for example, adopting a functional business model that extends the life of the product.

Different practices

Eco-design has changed over the past ten years. It has moved on from its initial precursors and environmental expertise to a period of eco-innovation and the creation of new business models.

Performance is at the center of these approaches, as witnessed by the changes in standards. The 2015 version of the ISO 14001 standard requires companies to show greater leadership and performance and integrate the life-cycle perspective.

Today, this requirement is being implemented differently from one company to the next; and the tools, methods and associated management vary greatly depending on the firm’s level of maturity and initial strategic positioning.


Samuel Mayer, Director of the Eco-design and Life Cycle Management Center, contributed to this article.

Natacha Gondran, Research Professor in Environmental Assessment, Mines Saint-Étienne – Institut Mines-Télécom

The original version of this article (in French) was published on The Conversation.

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