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The many facets of eco-design

Many factors influence a product’s environmental impact, from the extraction of the raw materials necessary for its manufacture to end-of-life management. Eco-design seeks to take all of this into account, but must deal with the fact that changing one element can affect other dimensions of the same product.

Sophie Bernard, an economics researcher at Polytechnique Montréal, has been closely studying such “intersecting dimensions” using a model based on game theory. This mathematical approach makes it possible to analyze scenarios where individuals’ decisions have interrelated impacts. The researcher modelled a company that can improve one of three variables during the manufacture of a product: it can reduce the pollution generated during manufacture, reduce the pollution caused by use of the product, or extend the life of the product.

This exercise is complicated by government policies that often target only one aspect of pollution. For example, the extended producer responsibility (EPR) program encourages manufacturers to reduce the weight of their packaging. However, this reduction can lead to food losses if the new container is less effective at protecting its contents.

The model used allows for the analysis of multiple combinations and their impact on the company and on the environment. Bernard concludes that public policy plays an important role in design decisions. Indeed, if policies do not impose the same pressure on all dimensions, the environmental gains obtained at one stage of a product's life cycle may be lost at another. For example, this could happen if we tax the energy used to manufacture an item, but not the energy needed to use it.

This research opens up avenues to explore for developing public policies that would play their role more effectively by paying greater attention to the intersecting dimensions of eco-design.