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The Role of Eco-Design

Eco-design is an approach to designing or redesigning products, services, processes or systems to avoid or repair damage to the environment, society or economy.  

Gina Daveloose, Design Principal, 3M Design, is deeply involved in eco-design and explains her role at 3M this way:  

“My job is to help create sustainable futures by thinking of ways we can make breakthroughs within a changing world in a responsible way. If we want to create a future that is good for business and good for the world, sustainability is fundamental,” she says.  

Here, Gina answers some of our questions about eco-design and what it means for the future. 

What should be considered when designing with sustainability in mind?  

Designers have great responsibility when it comes to sustainable design — around 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are locked in at the design phase. 

A sustainability-driven approach inspires one to solve problems by thinking long-term and keeping a wide view. The full lifecycle is explored for improvements, such as optimizing materials and energy from beginning to end of life, including next life. We strive to have products with great quality without negatively impacting people and the planet today or in the future. 

From edible coffee cups to bamboo toothbrushes, eco-design seems to be everywhere. How can consumers put their money toward “real” eco-designed products versus those that are gimmicks? 

Consumer concern for the environment can be preyed upon by greenwashing tactics. However, consumers can build confidence in their purchases by researching the company, educating themselves about green product language (e.g., all natural, non-toxic, biodegradable), or learn more by looking for certifications on the packaging (Energy Star, FSC, USDA Organic).  Additionally, a check-in with the municipality and its recycling capabilities will enlighten consumers — a product might be labeled as recyclable, but its compatibility with local waste management could differ.   

How does society need to look differently at spaces, products and materials?  

Society needs to look at them as investments. Once people start learning more about where things come from, how they are made, and what energy and natural capital was used to create them, they can then ask if they really need them. From a 3M designer’s perspective, we aren’t just designing for today’s needs, but also for the needs of tomorrow and beyond. Products are not developed for one life and one use — end-of-life recovery strategies are planned into the early stages of the design process. 

How can nature inform our approaches? 

Biomimetics is the practice of using nature’s models as strategies, whether it’s design, manufacturing, or economics. It can help address big problems, like scarcity, with inventiveness.  

Keep in mind, nature has been problem-solving for billions of years and has solved many problems that are being grappled with today, without intense energy and pollution. Learning from the desert beetle could inform water harvesting in arid environments, for example. Coral that captures CO2 could inspire building materials made from converted CO2. Humidity-responsive pinecones could serve as a model for passive air conditioning. 

Challenges can be redefined in functional terms. We can see how something is accomplished in nature and consider how that strategy may be used. 

What industries are leading the way? How can others follow their lead? 

Initiatives in architecture and interiors are highly impactful, as they use strategies across environmental protection and social good while utilizing building materials and design. Some organizations have created initiatives that bring the entire product lifecycle full circle, reducing and reusing as well as dedicating excess for societal needs. The more industries that think in this way and implement these changes can lead the charge.  

Those wanting to be involved should accept that there is no longer a choice between profit and purpose. Embrace transparency, voice a compelling purpose and be willing to partner to make genuine change.  

How does 3M embed eco-design tools and processes into the design process? 

3M is a material science company, which is a dream for designers. The design team collaborates with technical experts to inspire material development for sustainable applications.  

Specialists in simulations, life cycle assessment and generative design help to optimize material necessary for the product to function.   

Additionally, 3M Design builds and circulates sustainability starter guides and workshops across the organization to allow for multi-disciplinary problem solving. 

What progress has 3M seen in this area? What’s next? 

3M’s eco-design starts on the microscale. Our products can help people optimize energy with multilayer window films that redirect daylight or manage heat. To cut down on pollution, we offer smog-reducing roofing granules and glass bubbles to lightweight cars.   

3M is already leading the shift with packaging material reinvention, global corporate sustainability initiatives and more innovations in the sustainable materials space as we continue to help customers meet their sustainability targets. 
How can eco-design be realized on a global scale? 

At 3M, we believe we have a responsibility to design for the next generation. I think, globally, it comes down to holding companies and organizations accountable for responsible production and consumption.  

Eco-design is prioritized if demand for quality sustainable products continues, products become more widely available to more people, and accurate information about environmental, societal and governmental achievements is easily accessible.  

We are living in an exciting time where sustainability is a true imperative and we will have better ways to measure corporate responsibility.