[BLOG] Is eco-design an obsolete concept ?

[BLOG] Is eco-design an obsolete concept ?

Eco-design emerged in the 1990s as an approach aimed at ensuring more environmentally-friendly products, services, systems, and economic models.
For 25 years, I have been working on deploying eco-design, which is finally starting to be more widely and concretely disseminated and recognized in companies.
I also observe the increasingly frequent emergence of various concepts that aim either to encompass or replace eco-design. However, most have often turned out to be either eco-design guidelines or economic models themselves.

That is why it seems important to me today to remind that eco-design is not a concept that could be swept away by another, but rather a method that evolves over time. The current way of eco-designing is not the same as in the 1990s nor will it be the same as in the years to come, as it is continuously enriched by what surrounds it.

As a reminder, in 2015, the Global Sustainable Development Agenda set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. The twelfth development goal, SDG 12, aims to encourage sustainable consumption and production practices. It calls on producers, consumers, communities and governments to review their behaviors in terms of consumption, production and waste management, while taking into account environmental and social impacts at every stage of the product value chain.

Located at the interface between consumption and production patterns, eco-design helps to structure the market for products and services using a life cycle approach and tangible criteria.
Whether one-off or integrated, the eco-design approach is based on several principles. Multi-criteria and multi-stage approaches allow for the most comprehensive view possible of the environmental impacts of a product or service, and to manage potential pollution transfers, while taking into account the company's stakeholders. The eco-design approach offers tools that differ according to product types and industrial sectors in order to best assess the associated environmental impacts. It questions customer needs and evolves a company's raison d'être. Comprising several levels, the eco-design approach can support economic models built on material circularity, extending a product's lifespan (through reuse, repurposing, reparability, etc.) and intensifying its use (via the functional economy, for example).

The scope of eco-design is linked to the means, ambition and maturity of the company deploying it. In an eco-design approach, a company may favor economic development based on a territorial anchoring and focus its efforts on reducing the local environmental impacts of the product, service or system it offers (the approach may allow assessing whether it is better to source from a neighboring but polluting supplier or a distant but virtuous one); a company may include the study of social impacts (such as working conditions) and implement an eco-socio-design approach; a company may go so far as to modify its economic model and move from selling a product to selling a service, for example. Thus, the eco-design approach can apply to a product or a service in a society where the usefulness of products and the logic of ownership are increasingly being called into question, where responsible consumption is becoming necessary.

Like any approach, eco-design has limitations, particularly regarding the definition of an eco-designed product or service. The choice to label something as "eco-designed" lies with the marketer themselves, without any imposed "threshold", yet this label is not always in line with environmental issues and challenges. However, the European Ecolabel, whose framework identifies best practices for a given product or service, sets thresholds that define the minimum level expected in order to claim that an offering is eco-designed.

In recent years, one line of thought has been to link the development of products and services to planetary boundaries in an attempt to define minimum thresholds and thus propose a robust definition of the "eco-designed" label. However, taking planetary boundaries into account requires a political and regulatory framework that goes beyond the company: political choices must be made to allocate needs in light of resources and sustainability.

Eco-design, a concept? No, eco-design is an ever-evolving environmental approach. Since its creation, it has improved and solidified. Certainly, the approach is not complete, but it is pragmatic, adapted to the means of companies, and aims to concretely reduce the environmental impacts of products, services and systems. Its very nature allows it to support new concepts and economic models, while acting as an analytical prism aimed at perfecting them.

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Sonia Chouai

Maëline Touron