Guide to sustainable product design (2024 Update)

A lot of similar design terms flow around in the world of creating (more) sustainable products. But do they all mean the same thing? Are they equally relevant to your sustainable improvement efforts? Where should you start?

Capacity & Awareness

The difference between ecodesign, sustainable design & circular design for products, is that they approach what ‘sustainability’ in product design means – slightly differently. As sustainability becomes part of business, understanding the different sustainable design approaches is crucial for R&D. How do you deliver the most environmentally friendly products? And proof it?

When you finish this article, you know exactly which design type means what. And where to start yourself.

We cover:

The problem with making ‘sustainable’ products

Walk into a clothing store, gift store, or supermarket and you notice it immediately: ‘Sustainability’ is the product feature of the future. Brands already disclose carbon footprints or other environmental information on their products.

Sustainability is a commercial aspect now. This puts a lot of pressure on R&D departments to deliver real environmentally sustainable products.

But the problem with sustainability is that it’s very interpretive what it actually means:

  • How do you define a sustainable product?
  • Which aspects of your product should be sustainable?
  • For whom or what should it be sustainable?
  • For how long should it be sustainable?

As a result, we now see the terms Ecodesign and circular design pop up too. All trying to create a framework for what a sustainable product should be. How do you know which approach fits you best?

Sustainable packaging

The differences: sustainable design, ecodesign, and circular design

You can divide the terms sustainable design, ecodesign, and circular design based on their ‘focus scopes’. Although *secretly*, they all cover very similar design approaches.

1. Sustainable design

Sustainable design is the broadest concept. Generally, it indicates you design a product in a way that takes the reduction of social, environmental, and economic impacts at the heart. Minimizing these impacts as much as possible.

Reducing ‘economic impacts’ refer to boosting renewable- and minimizing exhaustible natural resources as physical inputs for economic production. In product design, this ‘economic impact’ aspect is mainly covered through making environmentally beneficial choices that minimize exhausting natural resources. E.g. by looking into recycling, upcycling, and other circular design aspects.

1.1 Sustainable product design in practice.

The best and most common approach in sustainable product design – is looking at design choices that reduce social and environmental impacts along every step in the life cycle of your products. So, from raw materials to the production, to transport, to use by customers, to the waste phase.

For example, take a simple T-Shirt and map out all the life cycle stages. Per stage, critically analyze the social and environmental aspects of your value chain.

  • Social impact: Are workers being paid fair wages? How are the working conditions for workers in manufacturing processes? Does your product have health-endangering effects on consumers when used?
  • Environmental impact: Which materials in my production are impact-intensive? Which of my manufacturing processes can be sustainably optimized? How does the waste of my products impact the environment? The best way to answer these questions is by using environmental data to test their effect on your footprint.
Image 1: The different phases in a product’s lifecycle (Life Cycle Assessment method)

2. Ecodesign

Ecodesign is a sustainable design approach. Whilst sustainable product design focuses on both social and environmental sustainability – Ecodesign focuses only on reducing environmental impact at every step of your product’s life cycle.

The term Ecodesign is very intertwined with the EU Framework established in 2005: the European Ecodesign Directive. The Ecodesign Directive wants to make durable and sustainable products the norm. It was first developed for energy-consuming products, providing Ecodesign rules to limit the energy consumption of electronics. Its rules now expand to other branches under the proposed “Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation” proposal (ESPR). Think of Ecodesign rules for construction products, textile products, packaging, chemicals, etc.

The ESPR stimulates sustainable products that are (energy) efficient in use, have a longer lifespan, use recycled materials instead of primary raw materials, and are marketed using circular business models.

2.1 Ecodesign in practice.

The foundation for Ecodesign is environmental data. This data is the result of performing the scientific method for environmental footprinting called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). An LCA measures 15+ impact categories for each step in a product’s life cycle. Its environmental data tells you exactly which process, material, or component in which life cycle phase, causes your biggest impact. It provides focus on where to improve your design – to gain the biggest impact reduction potential.

A couple of Ecodesign strategies are:
  • Product Stewardship: Take full responsibility for your product’s entire lifecycle. Ensure the product isn’t lost at the end of its life- but stays in the value system. A key element here is a take-back system. A business example here is our customer Philips.
  • Dematerialization: Generally, more materials mean more impact. Dematerialization is all about reducing the weight, size, and number of materials you use in your design.
  • Modularity: Design your product in a way that every individual part can be rearranged to fit the end-user’s needs. The result: products have longer lives as individual parts get updated to fit required changes over time. A business example here is the modular phone from Fairphone.
  • Longevity: This means you want your product to have the longest life possible. By making products durable and that retain value over time so people can pass them on or resell them. E.g. Think of high-quality watches or cars that are aesthetically timeless. A business example here is the shoes with extra long lifespans from EMMA Safety Footwear.
  • Disassembly: Design your product to be easily taken apart for recycling at the end of its life.
  • Recyclability: Focus your design on the recyclability of every material/part of your product. Look how easy it is to recycle the product/materials- to ensure they actually end up being recycled.

3. Circular Design

Finally, there’s circular product design.

According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, Circular design means designing a product or service that creates no waste and pollution and keeps products and materials in use. Circular design essentially contributes to a closed-loop system in our economy where everything is shared, repaired, reused, or recycled. The desired outcome: no waste, no impact.

3.1 Circular design in practice

In practice, circular design means you look at your product’s design with two specific goals.

(1) Minimum (preferably zero) waste & pollution throughout your product’s life cycle.

(2) Make sure your product’s value doesn’t decrease at the end of its life.

Find some of the circular design strategies – as highlighted by the Ellen McArthur Foundation in the list below

The Ecodesign Directive and circular design practices both have circular business models and minimum waste & impacts as end goals. Environmental data, again, plays a huge role. However, measuring circularity is very difficult and there isn’t one commonly accepted measurement method, like LCA in Ecodesign. There is the Material Circularity Indicator (MCI), which also uses LCA results as its foundation. You can find its methodology here.

Some examples of circular design strategies:
  • Designing for inner loops: Inner loops are the most high-value material loops. It’s where the materials in your product maintain the highest value during- and after the end of its life. Think of designs made for reusing, sharing, remanufacturing, or refurbishing. Recycling is the value loop that lowers the value of your materials the most.
  • Moving from products to services: This is all about shifting from ownership to access. Consumers often only need a product for a shorter time. So instead of buying it, you can offer your product as a service (e.g. via a subscription). This way, many different consumers use the same product. An example is Swapfiets.
  • Product life extension: Making products that last is a key element of the circular economy. It results in the production of fewer products, hopefully, used by multiple owners. Here, design focuses on creating emotionally, aesthetically, and physically durable products.
  • Safe and circular material choices: It’s crucial that we choose materials safe for both people and the environment. The Circular Design Guide has many methods and tools to help you do so here.
Image 2. Summary of the 3 different sustainable design approaches.

The difference between Ecodesign and Circular Design

Lifecycle impact vs Resource efficiency 

  • The main goal of Ecodesign is to minimize the environmental footprint throughout every phase of the product’s lifecycle (lifecycle impact). Even if that means you are less efficient with the natural resources you use.
  • However, Circular Design’s aim is to be as resource-efficient as possible. Designs should use fewer natural resources, whilst reducing the amount of waste generated. Even if that means life cycle impact is bigger.

Reduce waste vs no waste 

  • Ecodesign is based on the hierarchical structure of waste. You can approach waste in your product design in order of reuse (best option), recycling, recovery, and disposal (worst option). Still, conceptually Ecodesign assumes waste will most likely continue to exist.
  • In Circular Design, ideally, materials and products ideally are used infinitely. Eliminating the whole idea of waste in our economy.

Which product design approach fits you best?

Although they differ in focus, the 3 design approaches have these most important aspects in common:

  1. Environmental data as foundation: All design approaches use (mostly) Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) results as the foundation to create improvement scenarios and test the environmental effects of new designs.
  2. Full Life Cycle approach: All design types look at reducing the environmental (and social) footprint throughout the complete life cycle of a product – from production to the end of its life (waste/recycling/upcycling/reused/etc).
  3. Circular business models: all these design approaches have (more) circular business models as the end goal. This means you need to optimize your design to minimize waste and environmental impact.

Companies adopt both circular and ecodesign. However, since European Ecodesign legislation will highly increase in the next 5 years – many companies choose to embrace this design approach to improve their footprint and prepare for legislation. Combining it with circular design approaches.

The conclusion: Which approach fits you best depends on your sustainability drivers (legislation, customer demand, intrinsic motivations). However, even with different terms, these approaches cover many of the same aspects. So, regardless of which design approach you choose: use environmental data, take a full lifecycle approach, and aim for a circular business model. 

First step in sustainable design: Measure impact

Whether you want to test and compare already existing designs- or try out different materials and processes. Sustainable design, Ecodesign, or Circular design always starts with measuring the environmental footprint (LCA) of your product.

Our product footprint tool Mobius makes sustainable design an easy and efficient process – for everyone. Measure your product’s footprint across the full lifecycle, compare it to alternative products and materials, and show it to stakeholders. Our Mobius Help Center is just one click away for any support you need.

Quick, Easy, Credible.


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Zazala Quist

Hi, I'm Zazala - former content writer at Ecochain. My goal: make difficult sustainability concepts - understandable to all.

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