Life cycle of a product

A product's life cycle involves:

  • design
  • creation
  • manufacturing
  • transportation
  • use
  • disposal.

As a product goes through these stages, it uses natural resources such as energy and water. It also creates waste, pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

All of these aspects contribute to the product's impact on the environment.

Impact on the environment

Design and creation stage

Transforming materials into products often requires complex manufacturing systems and uses resources such as energy, water and materials. Extracting these resources, whether through mining, harvesting or land clearing:

  • generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
  • uses water and land
  • produces waste products.

Manufacturing stage

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

Transportation stage

Transportation produces carbon dioxide, which is the biggest contributer to climate change. The biggest concerns with transportation are weight and wasted space.

In most cases, products transported by road or air have a larger impact than those transported by sea or rail.

Product use and life

When thinking about how and for how long the product will be used, consider its:

  • quality – the right materials and manufacturing processes can increase a product's durability, reducing the need for disposal and replacement
  • function and efficiency – convenient and effective products are less likely to be replaced with competing products
  • appearance – if the look and feel of a product is part of a passing fad, it might be replaced even if it's durable.

You must also think about any other resources or materials needed for the product to function. This includes cleaners, covers, attachments or services the product will need during its life. For example, eco-design for a razor will factor in the blades.

Disposal at end of life

Think about what will happen to your product at the end of its life – will it go into landfill or be recycled? While you can't control what your customers do, your eco-design can make recycling easier and landfill less damaging:

  • make any parts that must be thrown away (such as the packaging) easy to recycle
  • try 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, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

What is eco-design?

Eco-design is a process for designing products that considers the whole life cycle of the product and its impact on the environment. Eco-design not only improves the environmental outcomes but can reduce your costs in the long-term.

Making environmentally friendly products

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 several ways you can design sustainable products:

Choosing materials

When choosing the materials for your product:

  • think eco-fibre – there are several 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.

Improving processes

When thinking about how to improve your processes:

  • 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, try to reduce inputs such as water and chemicals and use green, renewable energy
  • make it multifunctional – encourage customers to do more with less through multifunctional design
  • go zero waste – find ways of using offcuts, scraps and damaged stock so it minimises waste sent to landfill.

Marketing

Use your eco-design as a selling point:

  • Add a label that communicates eco-options to consumers such as ethical construction.
  • Ask your suppliers, manufacturers and contractors to provide you with independently verified certifications for environmental management and ethical practices.
  • Offer to take your product back or let customers trade it in when they're finished with it. You can re-construct it into something new, have it properly recycled or donate it to charity.

Sustainable product design checklist

According to the United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA), between 70 to 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is locked-in during the design and development stage.

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.

Identify key outcomes in the design and concept development process

Decisions you make with your client will impact upon the entire design process and the environmental impacts of the job.

  • Ask the client to identify in the brief the most important to the least important items so you can accommodate these with eco-preferences. In responding to a brief, provide the client with an eco-design option to consider.
  • Consider the impact of your product throughout its life cycle – can design solutions be developed to make it last longer, use less materials or be totally recyclable?

Produce prototypes sustainably

  • Develop prototypes that can be modified to reduce the amount of prototyping required if design changes are made.
  • Prototyping until you're happy with the design is a better approach than having to mass produce it more than once because the design has changed slightly.

Selection of materials

  • Select low impact materials that will promote longevity in your product.
  • Avoid coupling materials that cannot be recycled.
  • Preference materials that can be recycled in the country the product is intended for.
  • Use design techniques such as honeycombing to reduce the amount of material used.

Tips to reduce inefficiencies in manufacturing, packaging and transportation

  • Select manufacturers who have environmental management certification systems in place.
  • Ask suppliers to provide you with environmental information and look for those that have a low environmental impact.
  • Try to ‘close the loop’ by reusing waste materials and minimising virgin material inputs.
  • Choose recycled materials for packaging products that can in turn be recycled.
  • Flat pack your products to reduce cargo space and the cost of transporting them, and talk to sustainable packaging designers about new packaging options.
  • Think about ways to reduce the amount of packaging and still protect the product.