As we strive for sustainability, it’s clear the ‘throw away’ culture no longer makes sense. Single-use plastic and other disposable items are destroying our planet at an alarming rate. Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose in landfill. And not only are landfills an eyesore, but they are also incredibly bad for the environment, mostly because they release toxins and greenhouse gasses into the earth and air. And the plastic that doesn’t reach landfill ends up in our oceans, causing considerable harm to marine life.

Even items considered recyclable can be harmful. A seemingly innocent takeaway coffee actually has a huge impact on our planet. Us Brit’s get through a staggering 2.5 billion paper coffee cups every year, but only 1 in 400 is actually recycled. This is due to the 5% polyethylene lining, which helps to ensure the strength and safety of the cups. But this makes the cups difficult to recycle.

Despite many coffee shops using cups that are considered environmentally-friendly, the vast majority are used only once before going into landfill, which is a considerable waste of natural resources. Millions of trees are cut down every year, and an independent study suggests that almost 1.5 billion litres of water goes into making the cups the UK uses annually.So it’s clear there’s a great need for more eco-friendly alternatives. This has led to the emergence of

ecodesign - but what does this mean exactly? This article will explore everything you could possibly want to know about ecodesign, why it’s so important in the modern world and what you can do to incorporate this mindset into your business.

What is Ecodesign?

Environmentally sustainable design, or ecodesign, is a philosophy that considers product sustainability from start to finish: from the extraction of raw materials, to production, distribution, and its use until its end of life. The goal is to reduce the environmental impact of a product, while at the same time, maintaining the quality.

Ecodesign consists of incorporating a product's environmental impact into its design from the very beginning, taking into account the product's entire life cycle. The purpose is to produce goods that reach the end of their useful life in a suitable condition so they can be put to new uses - known as a circular economy. Unlike in a linear economy, where products are used and then thrown away.

The product life cycle

  1. Raw materials: Extraction & processing
  2. Production: Manufacturing techniques
  3. Transportation: From where it’s made to where it’s sold
  4. Retail: Place & method of sale
  5. Use: How it’s used, cleaned & maintained
  6. End of life: Repair, recycling, destruction

Features of ecodesign

The ecodesign approach has an impact on many product characteristics. These include:

  • Fewer materials: Manufacturing using fewer materials and less energy, to protect resources and reduce emissions.
  • Easy to recycle: Using materials that are easily identified, reused or recycled.
  • Use of bio-materials: Using a single type of material or a biodegradable material is best, whether man-made or natural.
  • Long-lasting: Sustainable materials should be durable and long-lasting, maximising the useful life of the product.
  • Reusable: Products should have multiple uses, be suitable for reuse, and be manufactured with recyclable materials.
  • Lowering emissions: In order to reduce CO2 emissions, products should be of a suitable size to save material and fuel consumption during transport.
  • Innovative: Technological innovations can optimise product efficiency and sustainability.

What are the Benefits of Ecodesign?

As well as creating benefits for the environment, sustainable design also offers great potential savings and efficiencies for businesses.

Photo by Alexander Abero on Unsplashlink

Here are some of the key benefits of ecodesign:

  • Higher quality products: Ecodesign products are manufactured with more durable, longer-lasting materials and offer greater versatility.
  • More efficient production: They save energy and require fewer natural resources and raw materials.
  • Lower costs: Green buildings allow for conserving water and energy. Construction may be more expensive, but it will be more cost-effective in the long run.
  • Fewer emissions: They consume less energy during transport, resulting in lower CO2 emissions.
  • More sustainable industries: Businesses become more committed to the environment and benefit from innovation.
  • Low maintenance: Eco-friendly buildings could benefit from large windows for natural light, rather than using artificial lighting which can be costly, and needs maintaining.
  • Happier customers: Consumers’ benefit from more attractive and better quality products.
  • Improves health: Sustainable products and green buildings are better for our health as they are free of harmful chemicals and components.
  • Market differentiation: Sustainable products have added value, giving them an edge over competitors' products.

The benefits of ecodesign affect both industry and society. The United Nations (UN) promotes this system as a means to improve millions of people's quality of life, reduce poverty, boost competitiveness, and lower environmental, social and economic costs.

Why is Ecodesign Important?

As the global population reaches almost 8 billion, we need to act now to prevent climate change - before it’s too late and we cause irreversible damage to our planet. Raw materials and natural resources are finite, and if we’re not careful, they will run out. The extraction of resources—for food, clothing, water, infrastructure, and other aspects of life—has more than tripled since 1970, including a 45% increase in fossil fuel use. But do you know what goes into making some of our everyday items?

It takes a whopping 7,500 litres of water to make just one pair of jeans, from growing the cotton to making the denim and getting the product shop-ready. That’s roughly 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It takes almost 10,000 litres of water to produce a set of car tyres, and more than 15,000 litres of water to produce a smartphone.

According to the UN, If the global population continues to grow as predicted, reaching 9.6 billion by 2050, it could require the equivalent of almost three planets to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. Of course we all know this isn’t feasible, which is why ecodesign is so important for a sustainable future.

A Brief History of Ecodesign

Ecodesign is a hot topic right now, but the concept itself isn't new. In fact, the roots of ecodesign can be traced back to at least the 1920s, and pioneer Richard Buckminster Fuller.

Photo by Frances Gunn on Unsplashlink

American architect Buckminster Fuller was an early environmental activist. Designer, engineer, geometrician, philosopher, futurist, he put forth an original form of living sustainability for humanity. Famous for his invention of the famous geodesic dome—the super-lightweight building that gets stronger as it gets bigger—Buckminster Fuller was way ahead of his time. He was one of the first modern Western thinkers to connect architecture to ecology and the environment, and described “the modern world as an ecosystem to be reconciled with nature”. He was talking about energy, fossil fuels, food, and pollution in the mid-60s, before the sustainable design movement took root. He was trying to develop ways of living that would benefit the largest number of people with the fewest possible resources, serving as one of the intellectual godfathers of today’s integrated approach to sustainable design.

In their 1996 book Ecological Design, pioneers of sustainable design Sim van der Ryn and Stewart Cowan argued for a seamless integration of human activities with natural processes to minimise destructive environmental impact. The realisation that any designed product, space, or environment has an expansive presence in the world, beyond its status as an object in materialised form, is significant.

The term ecological design emerged in the fields of design, architecture, and planning in the late 1960s, when the widely publicised image of the whole Earth rose to cultural prominence. Several publications at the time portrayed the planet as a finite system with confined resources, projecting the effects of micro-actions to have an effect on the macro-dynamics of the planet.

In 2002, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart published the book Cradle to Cradle, which proposed a circular political economy to replace the linear logic of ‘cradle to grave’. The book evolved into a production model implemented by many companies, organisations, and governments around the world. And Cradle to Cradle Certified® is now the global standard for products that are safe, circular, and responsibly made.

How Ecodesign Works

William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s 2013 book, The Upcycle, draws on the green living lessons gained from 10 years of putting the Cradle to Cradle concept into practice. In an extract from the book, the authors write: “Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn't even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”

When ecodesigning a product or service, it needs to be attractive for people, while minimising its environmental impact and maximising its business impact. It requires innovative design solutions that take into consideration the entire lifecycle by designing a circular system around it. Though ecodesign is an involving concept that is better considered as an approach to design than as a label for eco-friendly products.

The Ecodesign Strategy Wheel

Acting as a useful checklist or guide for sustainable design, the Ecodesign Strategy Wheel highlights potential strategies along the full life-cycle of a product. It provides useful prompts and focus to help devise creative ways for projects to be more sustainable, from the choice of materials and manufacturing processes, to distribution, and any reuse or recycling opportunities.

Ecodesign Strategy Wheel-1.jpg

1. Innovate solutions

  • Rethink how to provide the benefit
  • Anticipate technological change
  • Dematerialisation & sharing
  • Optimise or integrate functions
  • Integrate natural systems

2. Low impact materials

  • Avoid materials that damage ecology or health
  • Minimise quantity of materials used
  • Avoid materials that deplete natural resources
  • Use recycled, reclaimed, waste by-products, renewable resources

3. Optimise manufacturing

  • Minimise waste energy use in production
  • Use renewable and carbon-neutral energy
  • Minimise number of parts, materials & steps in the production process

4. Reduce distribution impacts

  • Reduce weight & volume of product & packaging
  • Consider reusable packaging systems
  • Use lowest-impact transport & source locally

5. Minimise use impacts

  • Change behaviours & encourage lower impact consumption
  • Reduce energy, water & material requirements during use
  • Design for carbon-neutral or renewable energy

6. Maximise lifetime

  • Design for durability
  • Foster emotional connection to product
  • Design for maintenance, easy repair, reuse & exchange
  • Consider upgradable products & second life with different function

7. Optimise end-of-life

  • Design for easy disassembly, component reuse & recycling
  • Integrate with used-product collection models
  • Design for safe disposal & biodegradability

Decathlon’s Ecodesign Criteria

At Decathlon, we do things precisely! Our design teams established a rigorous framework to define our approach to ecodesign. The products concerned must meet at least one of these criteria:

  1. Reducing its environmental impact by at least 10% with the previous model for at least two of the following indicators: climate change, air pollution, water pollution and resource depletion.
  2. It must meet certain very specific design endeavours: at least 70% of the product weight made using recycled polyester, a fabric made with at least 90% organically grown cotton, less water-intensive dyes, etc.

On top of our ecodesign approach, we have started an environmental assessment of some of our products.

Environmental labelling provides the opportunity to compare the environmental impacts of several products in the same category. Today, you'll find a rating ranging from A to E on the products evaluated. This rating system, already used for household electrical goods, is now being rolled out on our products thanks to our teams' clever calculations!

Find out more about our ecodesign approach and our criteria.

Examples of Ecodesign

Ecodesign is present all around us - in green energy heating systems, bamboo toothbrushes, and even edible coffee cups. It is also a key part of a company’s CSR strategy (Corporate Social Responsibility). In order to reduce their impact on the environment, many companies are implementing ecodesign approaches to offer greener products.

Ecodesign is present all around us - in green energy heating systems, bamboo toothbrushes, and even edible coffee cups. It is also a key part of a company’s CSR strategy (Corporate Social Responsibility). In order to reduce their impact on the environment, many companies are implementing ecodesign approaches to offer greener products.

Here are some ecological design examples:

  • ADIDAS: 2015 saw the first adidas x Parley collection, taking upcycled marine plastic and turning it into high-performance sportswear. Now, more than half of all the polyester used in their products is recycled polyester. And by the end of 2020, more than 30 million pairs of shoes had been made using Parley Ocean Plastic, which has set them in good stead to reach their goal of cutting out virgin polyester entirely by 2024.
  • IKEA: To save on the planet’s resources, Ikea have created the Kungsbacka kitchen, made from wood and recycled plastic bottles. For each cupboard door, plastic from 25 half-litre bottles is used. It might not sound like much, but it’s a crucial step towards an end to the use of virgin, oil-based plastic. By recycling and converting the bottles into plastic film for kitchen fronts, the plastic is reused for at least 25 years.
  • LEGO: The Danish toymaker's ambition is to make LEGO bricks from sustainable sources by 2030 without compromising quality or safety. For the LEGO Group, a sustainable material must be responsibly produced, using renewable or recycled resources, generating little or no waste, use sustainable chemistry and be fully recyclable at the end of its life, while meeting their high standards for safety, quality and durability. In 2018, the company took its first step towards these goals by introducing plastic blocks made of plant-based materials: 98% polyethylene, made from sugar cane!
  • DECATHLON: Our mission is to make the pleasure and benefits of sport accessible to as many people as possible, in a sustainable way. This is why at Decathlon we have committed to creating our products using an ecodesign approach. At present, over 500 ecodesigned products are available in our stores and on our website. However, they only represent a small percentage of our product range. Understanding the challenges of climate change and resource depletion, our goal is to achieve 100% product development with an ecodesign approach by 2026.

Sustainable Design Certification

There are specific regulations governing ecodesign that certify the sustainable products launched in the market. There are three certifications:

  • Cradle to Cradle (C2C): assesses the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance: material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
  • ISO 14062: international environmental standard that assesses integration of environmental aspects into product design and development.
  • ISO 14001: enables companies to certify their commitment to the environment by managing the ecological hazards intrinsic to their activities.

Businesses from all industries are bringing ecodesign to the forefront of what they do, creating products and providing services in a way that is less harmful to the environment. And individuals have followed suit by scrapping plastic water bottles in favour of reusable options and actively separating waste to recycle.

We all need to be mindful of using natural resources, and be aware of the effect our actions have on the environment. We have a responsibility to protect our planet, so we need to find and implement ways to meet our needs without endangering the world around us. Afterall, we only have one world. The least we can do is play our part in protecting it.