4 key steps in an ecodesign approach

Learn how to rethink your products and services so that they are more environmentally friendly

Read time: 6 minutes


Making the shift to ecodesign is not rocket science, but in order to achieve the desired results, there is an approach you can use to ensure that strategic choices are made.

The Institut de développement de produits (IDP), or Institute for Product Development, is a non-profit organization that has been supporting companies for 25 years toward the goal of integrating sustainable innovation. Benoit Poulin, General Director, and Laurent Gauthier-Pelletier, Project Manager, Sustainable Innovation and Product Development, explain what ecodesign is and how to implement it in your business.

It is a circular economy strategy that’s integrated in a greater deliberation on the set of practices that help optimize the design of a product or service to reduce its impact on the environment without compromising quality.

1. Think proactively

Ecodesign means that environmental aspects are taken into consideration right from the design phase.

In order to practise ecodesign, you have to kick off a reflection process about the development of the product or service.

“You have to start at the beginning of the life cycle, with the use of resources and the choice of materials up until the end of the life cycle,” says Gauthier-Pelletier. Different strategies can be used. For example, creating modular parts that can be switched out when they reach the end of their useful life and then recycled.”

The idea is to achieve cradle-to-cradle, or circular, production, rather than linear, cradle-to-grave production. “This creates a product or service without generating waste,” says Poulin. “To achieve this, you have to strategically choose the materials you’re using rather than looking at what ‘scrap’ you’re left with and trying to make use of it somehow.”

2. Complete a life cycle analysis

Having the right information is critical to moving ahead with your ecodesign project. For that, you’ll need a life cycle analysis—a process that is governed by ISO 14040 standards.

“Firms specialize in this work,” says Poulin. “Like a company that prepares its financial statements, the life cycle analysis provides actual figures. It is performed by analysts who quantify all the damage relating to realization and use of the product or service.”

Several elements are analyzed, including:

  • greenhouse gas emissions caused by fabrication and use of the product or service
  • water use
  • impact of materials used
  • use of packaging

3. Choose the most impactful actions

Armed with the life cycle analysis, you’ll easily see what aspects you can tackle first to have a greater impact.

“The danger is that companies try to move towards ecodesign without using a life cycle analysis approach,” says Poulin. “Because without an organized quantitative approach, actions may seem promising at first glance, but may not actually turn out so when you look at the entire life cycle.”

For example, it would be easy for a company to be tempted to adopt packaging made of new compostable materials. “On paper, they look great, but with some municipal systems currently in place, these materials are not always necessarily composted,” says Gauthier-Pelletier. “They are often sent to the waste heap, since decomposition occurs only if certain variables are met, such as temperature, which is not always the case. And often that information is not disclosed by the packaging manufacturers, which complicates their management.”

A life cycle analysis helps you make choices that will make a real difference at the end of the day, such as minimizing packaging and choosing a material that can actually be recycled for the packaging that remains, such as cardboard or recycled plastic.

An ecodesign strategy can be implemented with respect to a specific product or service and then integrated across the rest of the company. Or you can do the opposite: start with a corporate strategy that then trickles down to the product and service offering. “Both approaches are equally valid,” says Poulin.

Of course, as with any change, the decision-making process needs to be carried out in collaboration with the company’s various teams. “Company management is well advised to integrate their staff in the process to ensure engagement and a global environmental vision as well as motivated by employees,” explains Gauthier-Pelletier. “That way, it will become clear to everyone that certain decisions have to be made and that they will have to adapt their way of doing things.”

Is ecodesign more expensive?

A persistent myth is that shifting to ecodesign costs businesses more money. However, the IDP co-led a study in Quebec and France in 2014 (in French only) that proves the opposite. It showed that eco-friendly products had a 12% higher profit margin on average, compared to conventional products.

“We can’t say that ecodesign comes without a price tag, but it does create value,” says Poulin.

4. Share your success stories

When a company successfully migrates to ecodesign based on a life cycle analysis, it’s in the company’s interest to say so loud and clear.

“First, because more and more people see the value of ecodesign and are willing to pay more for the resulting products and services,” says Poulin.

Second, ecodesign may be worthwhile when you want to do business with companies that are subject to various environmental regulations. Some players will also feel market pressure, for example when some of their competitors start making the shift.

“However, when a company gets to that point, it’s close to hitting a wall,” says Poulin. “It’s better to be proactive and to be the organization that leads the way for its business partners, its suppliers, and even its competitors rather than the one that is always a few steps behind.”