Design for Sustainability

Design for Sustainability (D4S), also referred to as sustainable product design, is a globally recognized method for companies to improve profit margins, product quality, market opportunities, environmental performance, and social benefits. Companies can achieve this win-win situation for shareholders, consumers, and the public by improving efficiencies in the products and services they design, produce and deliver.

D4S Techniques

Basic D4S techniques include interventions similar to those used in cleaner production audits, such as increasing energy efficiency, using recycled materials, designing for recyclability, reducing toxic materials, extending product life, and providing services in new ways. Life cycle analysis and supply chain management are more precise tools for evaluating material flows and environmental impacts in a product's life cycle, and can help designers identify additional improvements. In many developed economies, D4S efforts have also been linked to wider concepts such as product-service mixes, cleaner production, systems innovation and life cycle-based efforts.

Global Awareness

High levels of awareness about energy efficiency and environmental issues and social challenges, as well as more strict regulatory frameworks, are providing incentives for companies in developed economies to rethink established product design. Supply chain management efforts have already begun to focus on resource use improvements, and surveys indicate that companies are open to increased use of D4S concepts and services in their product design process.

Many companies are already making progress towards design of more efficient products and production processes, but some lack the resources or expertise to make the switch to more resource productive, environmentally friendly, and socially responsible processes. Capacity building in these areas can be achieved through centres of excellence such as UNIDO-UNEP National Cleaner Production Centers, the regional networks set up by various UNEP programs, and supply chain relationships with multi-national corporations with experience operating in more developed economies.

Developing Economies

While developing economies face challenges in integrating D4S into business development and product design practices, there is also a unique potential for them to bypass the resource intensive and pollution generating development patterns that have been followed in the past, and in doing so address some of the other social concerns facing rapidly growing economies such as poverty and urbanization.

UNEP has long been one of the key international actors involved in formulating this approach to development. Building upon its previous work in ecodesign, UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics currently works to raise awareness, build capacity and demonstrate practical applications to businesses in developing economies. Activities are carried out in co-operation with various partners including Delft University of Technology, UNIDO UNEP National Cleaner Production Centres (NCPCs), other centres of excellence, and industries in developing economies.

Looking Forward

This increased focus on design issues as a key factor in sustainability is the result of decades of UNEP's work on cleaner production and eco-efficient systems. The horizons of pollution prevention have widened from a focus on cleaner production processes to the broader concept of sustainable product design, and continue expand to include transport logistics, end-of-life collection and component reuse or materials recycling. These product systems innovations in existing endeavors couple well with new products, systems and enterprises designed to create win-win solutions for businesses, local communities, supply chains, the environment, and consumers. Each product or system that is designed with resource efficiency and a full life cycle analysis in mind contributes to the promotion of a 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production patterns that was mandated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

In accordance with this framework, future D4S activities will focus on strengthening the knowledge base underlying action by government, industry and consumers, building governmental capacity to impalement a range of policies and tools, and strengthening partnerships with business and industry. These activities could include initiatives such as reporting on economics and development implications of resource depletion, establishing supply chain partnerships with SMEs to enable them to meet more stringent environmental standards, or training environment officials on resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production.

Publications & Resources

Various materials have been developed to help business leaders, product designers, and policy makers rethink how to design and produce products to improve profits and competitiveness and social benefits while reducing environmental impacts. UNEP, in conjunction with the Delft University of Technology and other experts in ecodesign, published the ground breaking manual "Ecodesign: A Promising Approach to Sustainable Production and Consumption" in 1997. Other publications and tools include:

Design for Sustainability: A Step-by-Step Approach
This guide is the latest in the D4S publication series. A global guide for designers and industry, it provides support to ecodesign novices and those looking to further their understanding of the field. The manual focuses on three different design approaches: redesign of existing products, radical sustainable product innovation and new product development. An additional section acts as a comprehensive 'how-to' guide for first time users. Online materials - including case studies, additional design and management tools and worksheets - compliment the print version. The manual is the result of a long term partnership between UNEP, Delft University of Technology and international D4S experts from the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia, with support from UNIDO, the Swedish EPA, and InWent, Germany.

Design for Sustainability: A Global Guide (2008)
A global guide for designers and industry is currently being developing to provide support to ecodesign novices, as well as those looking to further their understanding of the field. The manual is the result of a long term partnership between UNEP, Delft University of Technology, international D4S experts from the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia, with support from UNIDO, the Swedish EPA, and InWEnt, Germany. It is expected in late 2008.

Design for Sustainability: A Practical Approach for Developing Economies (2007)
Developed in conjunction with Delft University of Technology, this manual introduces the D4S concept and methods for applying it in a business setting in developing economies. It can be used to pursue internal D4S efforts (via the supply chain or single operation context) and by intermediaries to promote D4S efforts within affiliated corporations. Relevant examples and case studies are included from demonstration projects carried out in Costa Rica and Morocco.
Available in English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Energizing Cleaner Production: A Guide for Trainers (2007)
This training package follows the Energy Efficiency Guide for Industry in Asia and the Cleaner Production Energy Efficiency manual (CD ROM version) and enables company and technical managers make energy efficiency improvements in production processes. The package targets intermediaries working with companies, like NCPCs, training institutions and synthesizes the wealth of information UNEP has gathered via earlier projects and transforms it into a practical training package. It also incorporates experiences from projects and training exercises developed specifically for the module.

Life Cycle Management: A Business Guide to Sustainability (2007)
Life Cycle Management puts life cycle thinking into a business context. The guidebook Life Cycle Management - a business guide to sustainability is produced as part of the UNEP/ SETAC Life Cycle Initiative and covers the topics of:

  1. Sustainability and life cycle thinking based on the triple bottom line
  2. Life Cycle Management in practice in the various departments of a company and
  3. The implementation using a step by step approach to plan, do, check and act.

Throughout the guide, examples from developing countries and SMEs (as part of the value chain) are presented. The guidebook includes references to tools and further (easy) reading.
CD Rom available here.

Retailers Calendar Exploring New Horizons in 12 Steps towards Long-term Market Success: A Guidelines Manual for Retailers towards Sustainable Consumption & Production (2007)
This manual was prepared by the UNEP/Wuppertal Institute Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP) in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) within the scope of the Sustainability in the Retailer Sector Project of the CSCP. This document reveals a systematic process to locate value creation opportunities on the shop floor, within supply chains and consumer relations from the sustainability and product life-cycle perspective. It is also accompanied with a separate study identifying options for retailers to inform consumers by means of modern information technologies.

Communicating Sustainability Aspects of Products Using Modern Information Technologies: The Case of the Retailer Sector (2007)
This study is conducted within the scope of the Sustainability in the Retailer Sector Project of the CSCP. The project involves development of guidelines manual for retailers, which shows how to comply with sustainability requirements. As a part of the project, a study is conducted to identify options for retailers to inform consumers by means of modern information technologies. This document presents the findings of this study.

Caring for Climate: Tomorrow's Leadership Today - Climate Change, Environmental Responsibility and Examples of Corporate Leadership (2007)
This publication contains a collection of company good practices and leaders statements on climate change, developed in a process facilitated by the UN Global Compact, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). It was undertaken with a view to the Global Compact Leaders Summit, held in July 2007.

Tomorrow's Value: The Global Reporters 2006 Survey of Corporate Sustainability Reporting (2006)
The report ranks the world's leaders in corporate sustainability reporting, transparency and disclosure. Strikingly, half of the Leading 50 companies are complete newcomers, including 5 entrants from non-OECD countries. The results in Tomorrow's Value are based on an updated methodology and on a new selection protocol, both developed in close consultation with experts and reporting companies.

Life Cycle Approaches - The road from analysis to practice (2005)
The UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative aims to develop and disseminate tools for the evaluation of products and services over their entire life cycle to achieve sustainable development. This report looks at the state of the art in the field of life cycle approaches, analyses the user needs and presents a road map for improving the current state of life cycle analysis and for putting life cycle thinking into practice. This is done in the following three areas: Life Cycle Management, Life Cycle Inventory and Life Cycle Impact Assessment. The focus is on SMEs with an emphasis on developing countries. The report builds/expands on the UNEP DTIE brochure 'Why take a life cycle approach?'

Why Take a Life Cycle Approach? (2005)
The purpose of this brochure is to introduce a life cycle approach as one means to help us recognize opportunities, balance opportunities with risks and make choices that contribute value to our economies, our natural environments, and our communities.
Reading this brochure will help you understand what a life cycle approach means and how individuals, businesses, and governments take that approach. It also illustrates the benefits and suggests where you can find out more!
This publication is also available in: French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese

The Cleaner Production Companion (2005)
The publication of the Cleaner Production Companion CD ROM marks an important milestone in UNEP DTIE's efforts towards promotion and dissemination of Cleaner Production.

Cleaner Production Companion aims to provide information towards facilitating a more detailed understanding of what each stakeholder may do to participate and improve his/her role towards implementing this unique concept, as well as building stronger working links amongst each other.

Additional Publications can be found at:

Case Studies

APM Textiles, Fiji

APM is a textile company that employs 55 people in a small factory in Fiji. The company produces goods for foreign companies as well as its own surfing lifestyle brand, Wai Tui. The Fiji textile industry, which accounts for twelve percent of the small island's exports, has been under increased pressure from foreign competitors since trade protections were removed in 2005. In 2007, APM began a Design for Sustainability (D4S) pilot project to explore ways to develop new markets, increase exports and compete globally while protecting Fiji's environment.

Project Team
Solid waste is of particular concern on the island, so the company partnered with the Integrated Solid Waste Management project at the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. The University of Grenoble, and Troyes University of Technology in France were also partners in the initiative. The project began in September, 2007 with a seven member team composed of representatives from a variety of departments, including production, quality control, printing, and sales.

D4S Strategy
The main sustainability drivers for this project were the development of new markets, increased exports and increased competitiveness. The team met each week for four months to participate in workshops which included preliminary assessments of the company's capacity, identification of goals, brainstorming sessions on possible product improvements, and selection and implementation of feasible ideas.

The project team decided on a backpack as the first test product, due to its simple design, high sales volume, and competitive market. They focused on materials, human resource management and solid waste as priority impact criteria.

The resigned backpack featured the following improvements:

  • Replaced polyester fabric with cotton
  • Switched to water-based paint for screen printing
  • Reduced amount of plastic used in packaging by 97%

Additionally, the following improvements were made throughout the factory:

  • Improved safety in factory
  • Reduced amount of electricity used by air compressor by 50%
  • Increased amount of paper recycled by 30% by collecting from every department in facility

Next Steps
The redesigned product will be sold in Wai Tui stores beginning in mid-2008. The project team will continue to meet weekly to work on other products and factory improvements.