6.2 Making Ecodesign Simpler than Ever Before: Experiences from empirical intervention

Timothy Charles McAloone , DTU Management Engineering, Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Kgs. Lyngby, Denmark
Niki Bey , IPU Product Development, IPU, Kgs. Lyngby, Denmark
For the past three decades environmental awareness has developed at an increasing pace in the research community, on governmental levels and in industrial organisations. Three waves of environmental awareness have driven efforts in industry and society; each time raising the level of knowledge, activity and actual results achieved. In the meantime a steady effort from the research community has maintained focus on tools, methods and mindsets for environmental assessment and improvement, and governments internationally (not least in EU) have systematically increased environmental expectations and requirements in a series of areas.

Judging by this brief (and admittedly incomplete) history of environmental awareness over recent decades, it seems that all ingredients are in place to make major breakthroughs in the products and processes developed by companies. And it is true to say that there are many stories of companies, which are working increasingly to reduce their human impacts on the environment and nature. However, on engaging in dialogue with a range of industrial companies, few report to be ready to embrace the task of environmental improvement (ecodesign) into their product development processes, through internal communication and development channels, or through the choice of methods and processes.

Various research projects from the late 1990’s focused on the mechanisms necessary to encourage the integration of environmental considerations into the product development process in organisations; some focusing on the tools necessary to achieve this, others focusing on issues of organisational change. All of these projects pointed towards a few multi-national corporations (e.g. Philips, HP, Motorola) who could clearly be seen to be first-movers in ecodesign implementation, at one end of the scale; and at the other end of the scale a large handful of small enterprises, fighting to make a good environmental idea into reality (e.g. lampshades and fruit bowls from old vinyl records; sandals from old car tyres). In between these extreme cases was a huge collection of enterprises, which had never considered, or never succeeded in implementing ecodesign into their organisations.

This paper describes a project, carried out a decade after the above-named projects from the late 1990’s, where the initial conclusion regarding ecodesign implementation was the same as ten years previously. The project, which was supported by the Danish EPA and the Confederation of Danish Industry, carried out a survey of ecodesign methods and tools; an extensive survey of the literature in the field of ecodesign; and a limited survey of a representative group of Danish product developing organisations (15 companies in total), regarding their readiness, experiences and needs in the area of support for ecodesign implementation. Following these surveys, five companies were chosen as active case companies, in which a guide towards ecodesign implementation was developed and tested.

The aim of the project was to create awareness and encourage activity, by providing a simple and inspiring guide to ecodesign, consisting of a few easy to implement steps for companies. The guide should be applicable by all types of companies – from large to small organisations; energy using industrial products to domestic objects of design. Furthermore the guide should inspire the product development project team to create space for environmental thinking in their development processes. To satisfy both the ambition of reaching the smallest of Danish companies and that of serving international operating organisations, the guide was completed in both Danish and English, and made available free of charge. Since the guide was completed it has been implemented further by the case companies involved and furthermore tested in a series of other companies.

During the initial surveys carried out in the project, a number of interesting results were achieved. Over 50 ecodesign methods and tools were identified and presented to the initial 15 companies. The vast majority of these methods and tools have their origins in academic research projects and dissertations, which have been developed into more or less commercially available tools for use during the product development process. It was found that an astonishingly small amount of these methods and tools were known by the 15 companies; even fewer were actually in use by the companies involved.

The literature survey revealed the development over time of various approaches to ecodesign and highlighted both new tools under development, as well as areas of application for these tools. The survey also made it apparent, which drivers and barriers exist to ecodesign implementation in companies. It was also apparent that many tools had been developed in a vacuum, with respect to knowledge of other existing approaches and industry needs.

The survey regarding companies’ readiness, experiences and needs in the area of support for ecodesign implementation focused on a number of areas, as follows:

  • The level of environmental communication in the organisation
    i.e. does the organisation have an environmental champion, visible environmental goals or visible environmental reporting?
  • The organisation of the environmental task
    i.e. does the company’s management have an environmental agenda, is time allocated for environmental thinking in product development, is there a focus on environmental competencies in the company?
  • The extent of collaboration and network
    i.e. to what extent does the company involve external partners or actively engage in networking about the environmental task, are there initiated working groups in the company, are there environmental competencies in the companies project teams?
  • The types of ecodesign content and activities that the company has or supports
    i.e. which particular ecodesign tools are used in the company, which methodologies does the company apply for environmental assessment and improvement, are there clear environmental goals for product development?

This paper will present and discuss the above empirical findings from the respective cases studies carried out as a part of the project regarding the creation of an ecodesign implementation guide. We will also discuss the issues of periodical renewal and renewed presentation of such guides, in order to ensure sustained activity and implementation of environmental thinking in product development. Finally we will discuss a series of elements for future research and empirical industrial collaboration, based upon the insights gained from this project.