Product Design

In the last twenty-thirty years environmental issues have come to the forefront of the international political agenda. Environmental problems range from the macro level -deforestation, global warming, holes in the ozone layer, deforestation, natural resource depletion, and loss of biological diversity; to the micro level - pollution of local environments, toxins in foodstuffs and changing health and disease patterns. Some of these environmental problems are more associated with agriculture than industrialisation, or the 'industrialisation' of agriculture, by which is meant the application of modern technological processes to farming. In addition, environmental problems are not necessarily a function of industrial or agricultural processes per se, but rather the replication of these processes on a world-wide level, in the context of rapidly expanding consumption and rising population levels. Environmental problems are also a consequence of changing leisure and transport activities (for example water-sports, air transport) which are linked to increased wealth and are ipso de facto associated with industrialisation (Keating, 1993).

There is much uncertainty and debate about the cause, result and consequences of particular environmental changes. For example Wilfred Beckerman, a former consultant with the World Bank, believes that estimates of sea level rise over the next one hundred years (due to global warning) have been constantly revised downwards. If sea levels did rise appreciably, technology could be employed to defend areas of high population density. Even for countries like Bangladesh, Beckerman believes that the cost of preventative 'draconian' measures in forgoing economic growth and reducing CO2 emissions would be far greater than dealing with the consequences of sea level rise (Beckerman, 1992: 485).

Because of increased concern about environmental issues, particularly in industrialised countries, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development commissioned the Bruntland report which was published in 1987. The report contributed to the Earth Summit in 1992 from which emerged Agenda 21, a global plan of action on environmental problems. The Bruntland report has as a key concept that economic growth is compatible with 'Sustainable Development'. In the report, cited in Smith, (1992: 282) Sustainable Development is defined as:

"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet those needs"

The World Bank uses a different term: Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) to differentiate from development which is economically self perpetuating (sustainable development). Brundtland cited in Smith et. al. (1992: 277) deals with the apparent conflict between economic growth, resource use and the environment. She states that:

"it is both futile and indeed an insult to the poor to tell them that they must remain in poverty to protect the environment."

Williams questions the idea that industrial development and human well-being is commensurate with environmental problems; rather the current form of industrialisation/development is destructive. Williams (1982) cited in Smith et. al (1992: 281) states:

"We shall get nowhere in thinking about these problems [of industrial development and environmental impact] if we think that it is only the distinctive forms of modern industrial production that represent the problems of living well and sensibly on the earth."

There are many opinions as to how sustainable development is to be achieved (if at all). However Smith identifies three distinct approaches: the Structuralist, the Neo Liberal and the Environmentalist.

The Structuralist approach emphasises inequality between North and South. Structuralists believe there are many contradictions in the Brundt report and that the global capitalist system is unable to accommodate the changes required to achieve sustainability. Northern countries are culturally biased in their view of what sustainability means. Sustainability is not possible without radical structural transformation (Smith, 1992: 284).

The neo-liberal approach identifies market mechanisms as the most efficient means to efficiently allocate environmental resources. Environmental problems are essentially economic problems and the cost of environmental damage needs to be quantified and given value. Market incentives such as 'green taxes' (taxes on pollution) and the principle that the polluter pays, are advocated by neo-liberals (Smith, 1992: 285). This approach is associated with World Bank environment policy (World Bank, 1995:10).

In general, the environmental approach is more linked with the structuralist approach. However, environmentalists generally believe that economic growth is not compatible with environmental preservation. In general, the environmental approach focuses on reducing consumption levels in Industrialised countries. The environmental approach is also critical of the expansion of trade and the ability of the capitalist system to deal with global environmental problems (Smith, 1992: 285).

While these approaches are very broadly defined, there are many other approaches often incorporating principles from some or all of the above. Gladwin and Pearson emphasise that developing country leaders and planners have often regarded the issue of the 'environment' with great suspicion. Environmental standards can be imposed as a covert form of protectionism against LDC exports. (Gladwin, 1987: 4; Pearson, 1987: 116).

There are two concepts which are pertinent to any discussion about the environment, industrialisation and development. Firstly, problems associated with resource use, pollution, ozone depletion and global warming are predominantly the result of industrialisation and consumption rates in industrialised countries (Keating 1993:15). Secondly, problems associated with access to safe drinking water, decent sanitation, loss of biological diversity, desertification and deforestation are of greater relevance to developing countries (for example soil erosion threatens societies dependant upon agriculture and regarding biological diversity, most varieties of plants and animals are located within tropical zones).

In light of the first concept, if developing countries industrialise using the same technologies as currently used by the industrialised countries and at the same rates of consumption, problems associated with global warming, ozone depletion, resource exhaustion and pollution are likely to intensify both globally and within developing countries. There is also the possibility that firms in industrialised countries have relocated their pollution and toxic waste to developing countries (or will do so). Production might be relocated in order to avoid strict environmental laws (or strictly enforced environmental laws) or toxic waste might be disposed. An example of this was uncovered in 2005, when more than 1,000 tonnes of contaminated household refuse from the UK and Ireland, and disguised as waste paper, was intercepted in the Netherlands on its way to be recycled in China. Alternatively firms may exhaust resources (timber, water etc.) in industrialised countries and move to LDCs to acquire new resources.

Following from the second concept, developing countries face different environmental problems than industrialised countries and industrialised agriculture will impact differently upon developing countries than it has done on Industrialised countries due to very different environments.

7.1 Industrialisation and the environment

Industrial production effects the environment through natural resource depletion (water, air, energy, materials and the reduction of biodiversity) and through pollution of the environment (both physically through production plant or through toxic emissions, whether during production or in product use or disposal). The most crucial aspect of environmental impact is its extent. (For example, the rate at which greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere). While there is debate about the extent of the environmental impact of industrialisation, Hurtado (1995: 26) articulates the main concern:

"Nobody really knows when the world's consumption of natural resources will reach a point of no return. The same goes for pollution. What we do know is that the danger signals are flashing."

Three approaches are common in dealing with the adverse environmental effects of industrialisation:

  1. Reducing the level of Production and Consumption
  2. Use of cleaner production methods and more 'environmentally sound' products.
  3. Through environmental planning and waste and pollution management techniques.

The problem of over-consumption is described by Welford: (Welford, 1995: 15)

"One of the major factors which has allowed consumerism to boom has been the massive advances in technology and technological ability.... The result has been that the 1.2 billion people in the advanced industrialised countries consume vastly more, on all key indicators than the 3.4 billion who are adequately fed and clothed and the billion or more who live in absolute poverty... Although we might argue that history can provide us with all sorts of evidence to suggest that consumerism is not particularly new, a characteristic which we must accept is that the sheer scale of consumption is of a different order to anything known in pre-industrial times or periods of modernity."

Agenda 21 specifically deals with changing the patterns of production and consumption. It states: (UNCED, 1992: Ch 4.3)

"the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, which is a mater of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances"

There are two different ways of changing the pattern of production: reducing consumption in order quantitatively reduce environmental impact, or improving production methods and products in order to qualitatively alter environmental impact. By far the most significant is the former as stated during a meeting of UNCED in Oslo: (UNCED (Oslo), 1994: Ch 1.1)

"Many of today's trends in consumption and production patterns continue to go in an unsustainable direction. Total energy consumption is growing, despite efficiency improvements in industry and end-use appliances. The generation of solid waste has yet to be de-coupled from economic growth, while the projected increase in transportation poses one of the most serious consumption challenges for industrialised countries. Several research institutes have even suggested that OECD countries will need to cut their per capita pollution and resource intensities by a factor of 10 or more over the next half century if they are to reduce the burden they place on the global environment to sustainable levels. "

On the other hand, the latter option of qualitatively reducing environmental impact is the least problematic politically and economically. This was put succinctly at the Oslo meeting: (UNCED (Oslo), 1994: Ch 1.2)

"A key issue is therefore the extent to which necessary improvements in environmental quality can be achieved through the substitution of more efficient and less polluting goods and services (patterns of consumption), rather than through reductions in the volumes of goods and services consumed (levels of consumption). Political reality in democratic societies is such that it will be much easier to change consumption patterns than consumption volumes, although both issues need to be addressed."

At the conference, a working definition of Sustainable Consumption was devised : (UNCED (Oslo), 1994: Ch 1.2)

"the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimising the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations."

The goal of sustainable production and consumption primarily represents a challenge to countries that have already industrialised and need to limit over-consumption and its consequences. Nevertheless, there are a number of important considerations regarding Developing countries.

One view, is that the only way to attain a decent environment is to become rich through economic growth. (Beckerman, 1992: 482). Beckerman also points out that historically, 'limits to growth' have proved to be underestimates and new resources (for example of coal, oil) are always found to satisfy any given demand. (Beckerman, 1992: 483).

However, this (neo-liberal) view is in stark contrast to the structuralist approach, in which the developing countries will never be able to follow the development path of the more developed because there must be material limits to growth and this can only lead to increased inequality between rich and poor nations, since the richer nations will be better placed to acquire these resources through economic, political and military means. (Smith, 1992: 291)

The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) estimates that a five to tenfold increase in world industrial output is necessary in order for consumption of manufactured goods in developing countries to reach current levels in industrialised countries. (Smith, 1992: 289).

A key to resolving the issue of patterns and levels of consumption lies in bridging the gap between the external costs of environmental impact and the cost to producers and consumers. In this regard, Governments are the key actors in providing infrastructure, incentives and regulation in order to achieve sustainability from production to consumption to disposal. (UNCED, 1994 Ch 1.4)

There are several tools which can be used to produce goods which are more environmentally sustainable in terms of production, usage and disposal:

  • Cleaner Production
  • Life Cycle Assessment (described in the next section)
  • End-use approach to consumption and energy management
  • Environmental Space
    (UNCED, 1994 Ch 1.4)

With regard to industrialisation strategies for Developing Countries, the following points are relevant from the prescriptive literature:

  • New technologies offer opportunities for improving the environmental risk associated with industrialisation (Smith, 1992: 292; World Resources Institute1, 1987: 257; Zhenhua: 1995: 12)
  • An effort should be made by Developed Countries to transfer cleaner technologies to developing countries (World Bank, 1995: 28; Smith, 1992: 291; Cavalcanti: 1995: 5 )
  • The emphasis should be on preventing environmental degradation (Cleaner Production) rather than on remedial action (Waste Management) (World Resources Institute1, 1987: 256)
  • Cleaner Production, Life Cycle analysis and End Use Energy Management techniques can reap considerable economic savings (Larderel, 1995: 19; UNCED 1994: Ch 1.3, )
  • TNCs, should adopt a similar environmental policy regarding their host country and their home country (World Resources Institute, 1987: 258)
  • Changes can be made to consumption and production patterns in ways that sustain standards of living and enhance competitiveness and economic performance. (UNCED 1994: Ch 1.3)

These points do not contradict the need to determine the appropriate and sustainable levels of production and consumption world wide, and the need to face the problem of over-consumption in industrialised countries and the issue of equality between richer and poorer nations.

Environmental planning can be used to limit the extent of environmental damage. This is particularly important for developing countries. The location of industry can be planned through land zoning in order to separate factories from residential areas or water supplies. Infrastructure is important in order to cope with industrial wastes (water and electricity supply; waste treatment) (World Bank, 1995: 179; World Resources Institute, 1987: 256). Lastly, environmental damage can be cleaned-up. This is often a very expensive solution and questions arise over who is responsible for particular environmental impacts and therefore, who will pay.

7.2 Product design and environmental impact

The idea of sustainable production and consumption has been explored in section 8.1. In this section, the role of designers in producing ecologically sustainable products is explored. The attempt to design of ecologically sustainable products is sometimes referred to as "eco-design".

There are several reasons why designers engage in "eco-design", or take into account environmental factors in the design of products:

  • Due to government regulations. (for example, a ban on the use of CFC gasses)
  • Adherence to product standards which often specify safety/toxicity or energy requirements. For example those of the International Standards Organisation (ISO), and the British Standards Institute (BSI).
  • Due to consumer (and consumer group) pressure - preference for more 'environmentally friendly' products
  • Production - Design for waste reduction often reduces production costs through savings in material or energy usage
  • Efficiency - More efficient products may be less expensive for consumers to purchase/maintain or operate
  • Shortage of material resources - leads designers to explore alternative materials or product designs
  • Moral - the impetus may come from decisions of entrepreneurs and designers themselves.

The most comprehensive and structured approach to eco-design is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It is defined by Welford (1995: 99) as:

An analysis covering every stage and every significant environmental impact of a product from the extraction and use of raw materials through to the eventual disposal of the components of the product and their decomposition back to the elements.

Welford states that it is at the design stage where much can be done to improve a product's environmental performance. LCA might involve the examination of forestry or mining techniques, energy and water use in production, material and product transportation, packaging, air and water pollution, and the repair, re-use and recycling of materials. The technique is designed to expose the environmental damage caused by products up or down the supply chain (Welford, 1995: 99).

The principal means by which products can be designed for environmental sustainability using the LCA system:

  • Through the use of less materials or less parts
  • By designing products which use less energy in production or use
  • Through design for re-use and recyclability - so that constituent materials can be easily be extracted (sometimes new combinations of materials make recycling difficult).
  • Through design for reliability - through increasing the product use life span - so that products need to be replaced less frequently
  • Through using components, parts or materials which themselves minimise environmental impact.

Welford points out that 80 to 90 per cent of the total life cycle costs associated with a product are determined by its design. LCA pushes this fact to the forefront of product design activity. The main drawback of LCA, is that its effectiveness is limited by the limits of the study. For example, a petro-chemical firm might conveniently easily exclude the disposal of toxic chemicals in one of its constituent products. Nevertheless it is necessary to limit the scope of an LCA study. The LCA system forms the basis of the European Union Eco-Label scheme (Welford, 1995: 99, 102).

While, there is much that a designer can do to reduce environmental impact, much of his or her efforts will depend on the legislative and organisational context in which products are used. For example many products have been designed for recyclability, yet there is no physical mechanism or economic rational for consumers or producers to recycle these products.

The full paper is also available for download in PDF format

Bibliography on product design and development: