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Ecodesign, Ecolabels and the Environment:
How Europe is redesigning our footprint on earth
By Niti Bhan

What do chopped fresh green beans have in common with high definition flat screen TV's? And how does this relate to design? In Europe, they're both considered consumer products whose journey from raw material to shopwindow requires energy to process—emitting greenhouse gases that can have an adverse impact on the environment—and are considered to possess a 'carbon footprint.' In other words, they are products of a larger global industrial ecosystem.

When the postal service is setting down guidelines on the creativity and production of direct mailers so that their customers can better recycle them, it signals that graphic design needs to evolve the way its practiced entirely.

Acronyms and Initiatives
The European Union's chosen approach to address the issue of environmental degradation and climate change is a combination of regulations, directives and voluntary activities. Industrial designers and engineers around the world are familiar with many of many of these already in effect—the EU Directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the EU Directive on the Waste from Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) are top of mind in the field of consumer electronics and other energy consuming products (EUPs)—the first sector to be addressed by these rules.

Just ratified is the new European law on chemicals, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which covers the toxicity and hazards of chemical substances, touching the nascent field of green chemistry. Also to be enforced is the EU Directive on the Ecodesign of EUPs - this will directly regulate the negative contribution to the environment across the entire lifecycle of the product, not just the use phase.

Supporting activities include the Ecolabel—a voluntary certification for a wider range of products beyond those that merely consume energy during their use—helping consumers identify products that have considered all aspects of environmental impact toward minimum ecological footprint, compared to other products in the same category. This includes the chopped green beans, as their total carbon footprint assessed across the supply chain would take into account the energy expended to grow them, process them, package them and deliver them to the neighbourhood supermarket.

All of these and more come under the holistic approach of the Integrated Product Policy (IPP), which can be considered the foundation for such decision-making and the design of the various directives, programs and certifications. The IPP is a systemic look at the environmental impact of the entire supply chain and life cycle of any given product, taking all aspects of the global industrial ecosystem into account: raw materials, manufacture, transportation, distribution, marketing, sales, delivery and waste treatment at the end of life.

 

The Power of Design
While design has been picking up speed in addressing issues of sustainable development, a quick purview of the larger ecosystem helps in understanding the long-term consequences of the decisions made in the studio. It is recognized that a significant proportion (ranging from 70% to 90%) of any given product's ecological footprint can be addressed at the design stage. But the considerations mentioned above take into account factors all along the product chain that can directly or indirectly contribute to environmental degradation; decisions made at the design stage now become crucial in ensuring the best outcome throughout the entire system.

Carbon Trust UK's simplified diagram of the lifecycle of a typical can of cola, for example, enables us to visualize and correlate the relationship between product design choices and energy consumption at every stage of the supply chain.

Thinking about carbon emissions or other detrimental environmental effects in this way shows the contribution that each of the steps along the supply chain make to the total environmental footprint of the product. It's not just those due to design decisions such as material choice or manufacturing processes, but the net effect of all the activities. Processes, and their emissions, do not occur in isolation, but are part of the larger industrial ecosystem. For the Carbon Trust, this approach, called Carbon Life Cycle Analysis, shows that all the emissions generated in an economy exist to deliver products and services to meet the needs of the end user.

Similarly, the Ecodesign dossier for each energy-using product will employ the concept of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) incorporating not only the carbon emissions component described above by the Carbon Trust, but also taking a variety of other environmental considerations into account in order to document the efforts made to reduce overall impact of a product over its entire life cycle. These measures will give a list of key environmental performance indicators (KePIs) that need to be addressed—such as the amount of a particular natural resource used (copper, for example) and its provenance (recycled or virgin). Design thus holds the key, from the very first sketch, to affect the environment in numerous ways, throughout the entire supply chain of a given product or service.

Forward thinking companies are not waiting for regulations to become compliant, instead they have begun proactive efforts to redesign the way they do business, not only to minimize their eco footprint but also as competitive strategy, as increasing environmental awareness shapes the purchasing patterns and product decisions consumers make.

Competitive Advantage: The Entire Chain
Forward thinking companies are not waiting for regulations to become compliant, instead they have begun proactive efforts to redesign the way they do business, not only to minimize their eco footprint but also as competitive strategy, as increasing environmental awareness shapes the purchasing patterns and product decisions consumers make.

Hewlett-Packard is considered the leading innovator in this arena. Pioneering the concept of design for the environment over 15 years ago, HP has expanded the focus of their activities across the entire supply chain with a concept they call SER—supply chain Social and Environmental Responsibility. This covers all aspects of sustainable development, from ensuring fair trade practices and corporate citizenship with respect to their numerous global locations, to working closely with their vendors and training their supply chain partners in all aspects of meeting their standards. Today, as the UK's WEEE directive requiring manufacturers to recycle at least 4 lbs of equipment per head goes into effect since July 1st, 2007, HP is setting standards. They met their goal to reycle £1 billion of equipment six months ahead of the deadline and have announced an even more ambitious target of recycling £2 billion of waste electronics by 2010.

From The Scotsman, dated 15 July 2007: "Environmental responsibility is good business," said Mark Hurd, HP chairman and chief executive. "We've reached the tipping point where the price and performance of IT are no longer compromised by being green, but are now enhanced by it." The article continues:

HP recovered £187m of electronics globally last year—73% more than IBM, its closest competitor. The company's strategy is based on designing for the environment, which includes product design, as well as the management of its own operations and supply chain. Plastics and metals recovered from items recycled by HP have been used to make a range of new products, including automobile body parts, clothes hangers, plastic toys, fence posts, serving trays and roof tiles. For them, sustainable development is good business and a viable long-term strategy.

 

Marks & Spencer's Plan A, announced earlier in 2007, exemplifies this shift of focus in corporate strategy. They intend to spend £200m over 5 years on a wide-ranging "eco-plan" which promises to "change beyond recognition" the way M&S operates. Initiatives within the 100-point plan include transforming the 460-strong chain into a carbon neutral operation; banning group waste from landfill dumps; using unsold out-of-date food as a source of recyclable energy, and making polyester clothing from recycled plastic bottles.

"Environmental responsibility is good business," said Mark Hurd, HP chairman and chief executive. "We've reached the tipping point where the price and performance of IT are no longer compromised by being green, but are now enhanced by it."

Moving the Stuff
Airfrieghting fresh foods is a lucrative business, but concerns over the carbon footprint of those beans prominently marked "Kenya" now implies that perhaps those marked "Yorkshire" or "Lisbon" are a better choice. After Marks & Spencer announced their intention to add information comparing the carbon footprint of their fresh produce against the national average, even GreenPeace lauded the move as one that would make their competition sit up and take note. As consumers begin to choose a particular supermarket's green beans over another based on the Ecolabel's information that less CO2 was emitted in order to grow, process and deliver them, then being carbon neutral increasingly becomes a competitive advantage, rather than just a measure of compliance. This in turn makes it imperative for global shipping and logistics to work on neutralizing their own environmental footprint in order to remain competitive themselves..

For retailers, the most significant aspect of their total contribution to environmental degradation is their logistics and distribution network. And in today's globally-linked world of outsourcing and offshoring, this does not stop at simply using biofuels or electric delivery trucks from warehouse to retail outlets, but takes into consideration shipping from far away places such as China, Bangladesh or Brazil. The challenges may be tempting though; British Design Innovation goes so far to say that the push towards becoming carbon neutral across the supply chain is a major business opportunity.

Logistics and shipping companies have begun addressing these issues as the increased number of containerships calling on European ports has put ship emissions in the crosshairs of public opinion. Rotterdam, one of the world's largest container ports, has faced delays in its plans to expand even as China is building new ports at the rapid pace. However, the Ecodesign Directive's focus on the entire life cycle when assessing the environmental impact will have a direct effect on manufacturing and export—China's current strengths. Recent news from the China People's Daily acknowledges these by announcing 6 new environmental regulations, and tighter controls for polluting industries.

Choices made in packaging design and materials now become crucial decision-making criteria. In today's eco-conscious European market, no company can continue to ship products surrounded by excessive, wasteful packaging—something that directly affects the footprint in terms of materials used and energy expended—as well taking up excess space during shipping. The UK's suggestions to strengthen the EU Packaging Directive's criteria, quoted from letsrecycle.com, reveals, "This will include requirements for companies to use "best in class" types of packaging, in which packaging like bottles, cans or boxes are made with lightweight designs, using the smallest amount of material needed to sell the goods and maintain hygiene and safety standards."

Indeed, the Carbon Trust UK has just published their pilot study using innovative methods to analyze and evaluate the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain for two diverse companies: a newspaper and a potato chip manufacturer. This is a brand new carbon management tool that allows businesses to identify the hotspots for effecting net positive change throughout their systems. For example, they demonstrate that the maximum amount of energy consumed along the newspaper's supply chain occurs in the manufacture of paper, and decisions regarding recycled versus virgin paper from sustainable sources become secondary to the location and source of the energy used by the paper manufacturer. As constraints on a system's performance are increased, criteria for systems design become more stringent.

It is inevitable that the concerns that address the ecological impact of products and services will also shape not only the way in which they are marketed but also the sustainability of the marketing and advertising activities themselves. Design decisions are as critical here as they are for products.

Evolving Consumer Perceptions
Value for money in the eco-conscious European customer's estimation is evolving from lowest cost for best quality to include such considerations as minimal ecological footprint and carbon neutralality. Decisions are made based on information provided, and brands are compared on their environmental performance and sustainable practices. New means to identify the most ethical choice are being designed. Philips has announced a "Green Tick" symbol to identify their most eco-conscious products, while Sharp trumpets their 40th Ecolabel award.

The European Ecolabel, symbolized by the Fleur, or Flower, is a voluntary scheme to encourage businesses to provide products and services that are kinder to the environment—and provides a means by which customers can identify them. The products and services not only include those EUPs covered by the Ecodesign directive, but also such things as tourist accommodations, textiles, paper products including graphic paper, tissue paper and copier paper, mattresses, detergents of all kinds and lubricants, among others. Primarily a marketing and promotions tool, the Ecolabel also supports the overall EU environmental policies as requirements for certification are as stringent as the criteria for meeting the various legally enforced directives and regulations.

It is inevitable that the concerns that address the ecological impact of products and services will also shape not only the way in which they are marketed but also the sustainability of the marketing and advertising activities themselves. Design decisions are as critical here as they are for products. As increasing numbers of environmentally conscious European customers who must meet their local waste and recycling goals begin to note the significant contribution—2% of landfill is from direct mail and "junk mail", for example—companies wishing to maintain their good relationship and brand need to look at these issues critically. The Royal Mail UK offers a certified carbon neutral direct mailing program; their green logo can only be used on marketing material that meet their criteria on elements such as quality of paper, its provenance (virgin or preused), specific processes and inks that do not adversely affect the ultimate recylability and reuse (certain inks contain metals, or paper treatments like waxing). When the postal service is setting down guidelines on the creativity and production of direct mailers so that their customers can better recycle them, it signals that graphic design needs to evolve the way its practiced entirely.

Marketing and promotions firms have begun to address these issues, and graphic design firms can take the lead. Adam Constantine Design, for example, firmly states that they are wholly sustainable in their approach. Understanding the details of print production and ink manufacture is also shifting from focusing on visual quality alone to evaluating the holistic impact of the design decisions throughout the lifecycle of the brochure, pamphlet, poster, or other collateral material.

 

Implications for the future
European market forces such as Ecodesign, consumer choices and ecolabels are beginning to change the practice of design at the most fundamental levels. It is no more just a matter of a greener product or choosing a less toxic component or material. It requires an understanding of the entire production process, distribution and marketing system on a global scale, and the way that systems are being redesigned to meet these criteria. These trends also imply sea changes in the way businesses are organized and the way they function. From a BusinessWeek article dated July 20th, 2007:

Winfried Häser, an environmental strategist with Germany's postal service, Deutsche Post, [...] regularly meets with the professional financial investors of international banks like Credit Agricole and HSBC to tell them about all the things his Bonn-based, internationally active logistics organization is doing for the environment. Once they've heard Häser's presentation, the investors usually fire back with questions about Deutsche Post's progress on reducing its CO2 emissions and how many of the company's 130,000 vehicles are already running on biofuels. The financial world suddenly has a burning interest in the answers to these and other questions about preserving the environment.

Companies in all sectors of the economy are suddenly examining their businesses to determine how sustainable and environmentally conscious they are in fact doing business. They are not doing this out of pure altruism. Instead, companies find themselves forced to adjust to new realities, including stricter environmental laws and the ever-rising cost of coal, natural gas, oil and electricity. In the process, some are even discovering ways to develop entirely new businesses. Climate protection is becoming an important competitive factor. For this reason, companies are looking for strategies on how to address the issue in the future.

When German bankers in high finance begin to closely evaluate the environmental strategies of the businesses they choose to invest in, how soon before the need to redesign the fundamentals of corporate strategy (such as a focus on profitability and growth, or traditional MBA frameworks such as the 4P's of marketing) to include these new constraints and criteria? Marks & Spencer's 5-year plan demonstrates that environmental considerations are changing the fields of business and design. Competitive advantage requires a revaluation of the basics of good business such as cutting cost and improving productivity; as Hewlett-Packard's example shows, a bigger perspective and more holistic way of understanding the impact of human activity is required to ensure that design decisions taken today across disparate industries integrate to support the evolution of sustainable industrial ecosystems emerging in the future.

 

 

Further analyses of these market forces on design planning and strategy are also available.

Niti Bhan is an engineer, an MBA and a design thinker specializing in new and emerging markets strategy. She is a member of the advisory board for the UNESCO/Fellisimo Social Design Network and recently served on the jury for "Heated Issue"—their competition on communication strategies for climate change