Choosing sustainable products and materials

Ashby charts help to select materials considering both technical and environmental requirementsThe increasing availability of product environmental information provides an opportunity for consumers to choose more sustainable products and for designers to be rewarded for selecting more sustainable materials.

Look at the packaging of the next product you buy and in a lot of cases you will find some information about the environmental impacts of the product. Some of this is basic information about how the product should be recycled at the end of its useful life. An increasing number of products display more sophisticated environmental data such as an eco label, the amount of recycled content in the materials used, or details of the product’s energy efficiency or carbon footprint. The number of products displaying an eco label is set to increase over the coming years as companies introduce their own eco labels and organisations such as the European Commission and national governments expand the scope of existing eco labelling schemes and introduce new regulation, such as the Grenelle 2 law in France.
Eco labels – consumer empowerment or an opportunity for greenwash?Eco labels – consumer empowerment or an opportunity for greenwash?

The rise of eco labels has implications for everybody, as we are all consumers, but there also specific implications for anybody involved in the design of products and the selection of materials.

Choosing sustainable products

As consumers, eco labels provide the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact associated with the products we buy by using the information in the label to influence our purchase decisions. However, consumers should be wary of ‘green wash’ – attempts by manufacturers to promote certain environmental credentials of a product to divert attention from other, more significant, environmental impacts. For example, if a car manufacturer wants to tell you about renewable energy used at their production plant rather than telling you about the fuel efficiency and emissions of their cars, the alarm bells should be ringing.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid being tricked by green wash and make more sustainable product choices by:

  1. Having a basic understanding of the lifecycle of products and the impacts products they have on the environment from material extraction through to disposal.
  2. Look for eco labels that provide credible, science-based environmental information such as the European Union’s Eco Label, the Carbon Trust’s Carbon Label, or the US EPA’s Energy Star label.
  3. Make use of tools such as GoodGuide which provides an independent assessment of the environmental, social and health impacts of products and is available and a web-browser plug-in and a smartphone app.

Choosing sustainable materials

As designers, eco labels and the publication of product environmental data provide an opportunity for you to differentiate your product based on its environmental performance. One way to improve the environmental impact of your product is by choosing more sustainable materials. But as we have already heard in this blog series, there is no such thing as a ‘sustainable material’! So unfortunately there is no catalogue of sustainable materials for you to choose from. What you can do is to try to choose the most sustainable material for your application. I therefore encourage you to focus on the sustainable use of a material for a given application, rather than trying to find a ‘sustainable material’.

As a starting point, when choosing a material with the aim of improving the sustainability of your product you should aim to:

  • Minimize the lifecycle environmental impacts of the product – performing a quick Eco Audit-type assessment during the early stages of product design can provide a good estimate of the environmental fingerprint of the product. With this information you can then set appropriate objectives for your material choice. For example, you could focus on lightweighting when selecting materials for a car chassis component to reduce the fuel consumption.

  • Meet the requirements of restricted substances legislation – in Europe the RoHS and REACH Directives now limit the use of certain hazardous substances. As the list of substances restricted by these legislations continues to grow we find that more and more materials that contain these substances are being withdrawn from the marketplace, requiring product manufacturers to find suitable alternatives. Keeping track of current and future substances restrictions can help to avoid this type of costly substitution activities.
  • Secure ability to source the material throughout the lifetime of the product – Rare Earth Elements and Platinum Group Metals are commonly used in important applications such as wind turbines, electric vehicles, mobile phones and consumer electronics. However, the difficulty of extracting and processing these materials combined with production monopolies and political factors means that there is a significant risk of disruption to their long-term supply –as highlighted by the dispute between China and Japan in 2010.
  • Meet all technical performance requirements – if technical performance requirements are not met, product failures are likely, resulting in safety and environmental hazards, customer dissatisfaction and brand reputation damage.
  • Meet cost requirements – whilst this is always an important consideration, what is often overlooked is the fact that the cheapest material per kilogram may not be the cheapest material over the life cycle of the product, after taking into consideration the cost of manufacture, the application, necessary lifetime of the product, the disposal costs etc.

So for both consumers and designers, the trend towards displaying more information about the environmental impacts of a product should be seen as an opportunity to move towards more sustainable products, a more sustainable use of materials, and a more sustainable future.


Jamie O’HareAbout Jamie O’Hare
Dr Jamie O’Hare is the Product Manager for Eco Design at Granta Design where he is responsible for the development of Granta’s ‘Eco Audit’ environmental assessment software.
> More about Jamie O’Hare

One response to “Choosing sustainable products and materials

  1. Have you ever considered creating an ebook or guest authoring on other sites?
    I have a blog based on the same topics you discuss and would
    really like to have you share some stories/information.
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