Life cycle thinking

Ecological design has undergone continuous development over the past forty years. While the topic initially emphasised the prevention of waste and pollutants in production, modern Ecodesign strategies are aimed primarily at the avoidance of harmful consequences for the environment. This covers the entire life cycle of a product, from the acquisition of raw materials to production, distribution, use, reuse or recycling, all the way to disposal.

Utilitarian value and symbolic function

Today, alongside the consideration of environmental aspects, increasing emphasis is also being placed on the socio-economic impact of products. Findings from the areas of sociology of consumption and design sciences have shown that a purely technical approach is insufficient for products and systems. As consumers, the social, aesthetic and symbolic functions of the design of a product will often have a greater influence on our behaviour than the pure utilitarian value.

As far back as the Agenda 21 action plan adopted in Rio in 1992, a change in consumer habits was identified as a crucial prerequisite for the realisation of sustainable development. Ecodesign is thus about much more than minimising impacts on the environment through changes on the material and technical side. Specifically, it strives – from the outset – to adequately and intelligently include individual principles, lifestyles and cultural practices. Thereby, ecodesign cannot be solely product-oriented but must think in system-oriented terms in which the subsequent procedures and processes retain a sense for human-object relations – beyond the objects themselves.

Design creates a material reality and also fulfils a communicative and identity-conveying function. Design shapes our everyday culture and impacts all areas of social practice. Our identity – individual and collective – is defined to a large extent by the things with which we surround ourselves. Both the utilitarian value and the figurative/symbolic function of products are significantly influenced by design.

Social, economic and ecological aspects

The design process is an extremely complex undertaking that mediates between technical, aesthetic, economic, social and environmental contexts. Varying weight can be attached to each of these, depending on whether technical parameters, aesthetic standards, economic requirements or social and ecological impact stand at the foreground. Ecological design emphases the latter, without losing sight of other factors.

In a sustainable design concept, it is vital that the broader consequences are properly addressed and that proactive consideration is given to the social, the economic and the ecological. What this means – beyond a discussion of the environmental impact of production processes and products, or of the energy and material resources consumed by a product during its life cycle – is a more profound comprehension of the societal consequences inherent in a design, regardless of whether it concerns a material or immaterial product.

Technical proficiency and aesthetic sensibilities as well as systemic-structural thinking are central requirements of the design process. Also vital is the ability to view a product as part of a system and to anticipate its impact on the environment and on the complex interrelationships of social practice. This applies even more in a design process that uses sustainability as a benchmark

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