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Designing sustainable products

Source, design, and create products that are environmentally friendly

On this page

  • What are the environmental impacts of a product's life cycle? 
  • Tips to design products that reduce environmental impacts

Reduce your environmental impact

When designing your products, considering the environmental impacts of the whole life cycle for that product is known as eco-design. Eco-design not only improves the environmental outcomes, it may also reduce your costs in the long-term.

What are the impacts?

The design and creation of products can require:

  • the extraction of natural resources
  • manufacturing
  • transportation
  • waste disposal at the end of life.

As a product goes through these stages energy and water are used, and waste, pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are created. The impacts are outlined below.

Resource extraction and manufacturing

The extraction of natural resources – whether through mining, harvesting or land clearing – generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, uses water and land, and produces waste products that have to be disposed of in the environment.

Transforming materials into products often requires complex manufacturing systems and requires resources such as energy, water and materials – all of which contribute to the product's environmental impacts.

The main impacts of manufacturing are due to the energy used to create the product, and the emissions (air, water and waste) generated during the process.

Transport

Transportation is vital – but it also causes environmental impacts

The biggest impact on the environment is the production of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. In most cases, products distributed by road or air have a larger impact than those transported by sea or rail. One issue with transportation is weight and wasted space.

Product use

Additional energy, fuel, water, cleaners, covers, attachments or other materials required for a product to achieve its function (for example, razors are pointless without blades) must be included in eco-design considerations.

If a product needs services or other extras during its life, these must be considered as they'll contribute further to the product's environmental impact. 

Both function and form, efficiency and quality are important factors when considering a product's use impacts. Durability and extended product life can reduce the impact of replacement and disposal, which links back to material selection, as discussed above. 

Equally, if the look and feel of a product is part of a passing fad, or the product isn't convenient or effective, then even if it's durable, it may not last long and be quickly replaced.

End of life

Will the product go into landfill or will it get recycled? While it may be impossible to know, eco-design can make recycling easier and landfill less damaging.

If all or part of your product has to be thrown away (for example the packaging), make sure it's more likely to be recycled. 

As a general rule, it's best to avoid organic materials (such as wood) going into landfill where they're not exposed to oxygen. Instead of disintegrating, organic materials tend to mix with other substances and produce methane – a potent greenhouse gas.

Tips to design products that reduce environmental impacts

By investigating the potential impacts of your product – and then finding ways of reducing these issues through eco-design – you can create functional, aesthetically pleasing and successful designs without locking in unnecessary environmental impacts.

There are a number of ways you can design sustainable products:

Materials:

  • Think eco-fibre: there are a variety of fibre options for garment construction and textile use, and each has pros and cons from an environmental perspective.
  • Make it last: select materials and design styles that will promote durability and longer use of the garment. Try not to design fads as these will inevitably end up in landfill.
  • Enhance recyclability: selecting materials that can be easily recycled, or designing the product so it has a timeless style, will decrease its environmental impact.
  • Reduce your VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds): VOCs are the funny smell you get from dyes and inks, and are potent greenhouse gases.

Process:

  • Less is more: reduce the ecological footprint of your product by designing patterns to use up as much of the fabric as possible.  
  • Think life cycle: try to find innovative ways of reducing the impacts of your product throughout its life, from packaging to the washing and care, and end of life.
  • Be efficient: select manufacturers and production processes that are energy efficient, use green, renewable energy and make efforts to reduce inputs such as water and chemicals.
  • Make it multifunctional: encouraging customers to do more with less through multifunctional design promotes overall environmental benefits.
  • Zero waste: find ways of using offcuts, scraps and damaged stock so that it minimises waste to landfill

Marketing:

  • Label it: an essential part of a garment and a great way to communicate eco-options to consumers such as ethical construction.
  • Look for certification: ask your suppliers, manufacturers and contractors to provide you with independently verified certifications for environmental management and ethical practices.
  • Offer a service: why not take your product back or let customers trade it in when they're finished with it? Then you can re-construct it into something new or donate it to charity.