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Sustainable production and consumption: How to create better products and services

Companies today are expected to deliver a supply of goods and services which are less polluting and use fewer resources, while still providing value and performance for consumers. This page includes information on sustainable products and services and the many factors driving change.


"I want to see the day when consumers can expect that environmental responsibility is as fundamental to the products they buy as health and safety is now."
Tony Blair, September 2004

The problem with so many products

Current levels of consumption and production have bought benefits to many but too often at the expense of the environment and communities. If everyone in the world were to consume natural resources and generate carbon dioxide at the rate we do in the UK, we'd need three planets to support us. Moving towards 'one planet living' requires radical changes to levels of consumption and the nature of the products and services we buy.

recycled cansAny product consumed has an impact on the environment somewhere across its life cycle, whether during its manufacture, its use, or disposal. These impacts are often felt outside the UK and can have an adverse effect on communities overseas. The product areas identified as having the greatest impact on the environment are; food and drink, transport, energy-using products (in buildings), construction products, and clothing.

Consumers have a significant role to play in choosing more sustainable products. Yet many of the avoidable impacts that arise from the choices people make are already 'designed in' long before they reach the end consumer. Designers, manufacturers, retailers and marketing professionals bear a responsibility to create and promote goods and services with significantly reduced environmental and social impacts both here and abroad.


What is driving sustainable product design?

Companies increasingly view sustainable product design - sometimes referred to as eco-design or design for sustainability (DfS) - as a strategic issue. This is partly a response to signals from legislation, but many also see it as a way of becoming more competitive. By implementing sustainable design, companies can save themselves money. Investors too are beginning to reward companies that report on their non-financial performance.

On the demand side, there is some evidence of consumers switching to more sustainable products and services, and corporate reputation and brand value are increasingly tied to the environmental and social performance of a company. Public sector procurement is also being directed towards sustainable goods and services, with the effect of stimulating markets and setting an example for business and the public. (This content has been moved to the National Archives website.)

For its part, Government is adopting an environmental policy 'toolbox' or Integrated Product Policy (IPP) approach to tackling unsustainable levels of consumption or production. This includes a variety of voluntary and mandatory measures, such as policies to promote consumer demand or support innovation, as well as the use of regulatory and fiscal instruments where necessary.


How to create better goods and services

Encouraging sustainable products

To date, sustainable product innovation has largely involved making incremental changes to existing products through technological improvements to product design. The energy-efficiency of white goods, for example, has risen significantly and the most inefficient products have been removed from the market.

The Government's Market Transformation Programme (MTP) aims to advance a wide range of both domestic and commercial sustainable products, which are designed to consume fewer resources. In consultation with industry, MTP outlines the variety of measures needed to reduce the environmental impact of products. These include policy tools covering product information, such as mandatory energy labelling, and measures designed to drive up standards - average and best in class, not just minimum - such as mandatory energy efficiency requirements.

Taking the lead

  • The John Lewis Partnership has taken the decision to stock only A-rated appliances (where a sufficient range is available). Read more about 'choice editing' in the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable report, I will if you will, available from the Sustainable Development Commission website.
  • BskyB has signed up to a voluntary EU Code of Conduct, which states that it will not promote or sell digital set-top boxes that waste most energy.

Fuel economy labelLabelling is the simplest and most direct way of communicating information on a product's environmental or social credentials to consumers. For instance, new passenger cars are now showing the new Fuel Economy Label, which carries details of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Voluntary, consumer assurance labelling schemes also provide information on a range of social and environmental issues. A high quality example is the European Ecolabel, which uses a flower logo to show that a product meets the scheme's standards.

One of the legislative tools available is producer responsibility regulation, which aims to ensure that businesses take responsibility for products placed on the market once they reach the end of their life. Putting at least some of the costs of disposal on producers gives businesses an incentive to design goods in such a way that cuts the use of hazardous substances, minimises waste, and creates products to be reused or more easily recycled. The UK has a number of producer responsibility schemes in place covering different waste streams.

The Eco-design of Energy Using Products Framework Directive (EuP) is also designed to encourage sustainable innovation by changing the product design process. Manufacturers producing qualifying energy-using products may be required to assess the environmental impact of their product throughout its lifecycle, establish an ecological product profile, and then focus on those factors that can be substantially improved through product design.

Taking the lead

  • ABB Instrumentation Products, a leader in power and automation technologies, used eco-design to reduce the costs arising from the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive, one of the producer responsibility schemes. Read the case study on the ENVIRON website. A full explanation of WEEE can be found on the WEEEman website.


Opportunities for sustainable product innovation

While improvements to resource efficiency are a necessary part of addressing the environmental impacts of products, increases in overall consumption mean that gains are often minimal or can even be cancelled out. For example, a trend towards having a second fridge in the home has meant that, while average energy consumption has fallen by 16% in the last decade, total energy consumption fell by only 2%.

new products Innovation is needed to improve products and services, as well as processes, business models and organisations, so that we go beyond small changes to create new, less resource-intense ways of meeting the needs of people. In this way, innovation in the design of products and services can lead to opportunities by helping to create new markets, promote competitiveness and enhance corporate reputation, at the same time as delivering social and environmental benefits.

Taking the lead

  • Engineering consultants, Arup, are creating a masterplan for Dongtan, an eco-city in China where, for example, petrol and diesel vehicles are being designed out of the city. To read an interview with Peter Head, the Arup director in charge of the Dongtan project, visit the Sustainability website.
  • The award-winning Cycloc bicycle rack, made from 100% recycled, post-industrial plastic, cuts resource use and encourages city cycling. To read a case study of Cycloc, visit the London Remade website.
  • The Design Council's website highlights many good examples of sustainable innovation in product design, including Peugeot Citroen's 'Stop & Start' engine (it switches to standby mode when stopped) and the initiative from the Tellus Institute, which reduces chemical usage by encouraging companies to 'hire' chemical management expertise in place of buying chemicals by volume.

The Government has developed a wide range of initiatives to promote sustainable innovation and improve the take-up of environmental technologies. These include funding for research and development for technologies addressing sustainable development, mobilisation of funding for sustainable innovation for small and medium-sized businesses, and Government initiatives working with and advising business on topics such as innovation in the environmental industries sector. More information on Government support can be found on the advice and support for business page.


Further information on sustainable products and services

For more information for businesses on sustainable innovation, resource efficiency, and compliance with regulations, visit the advice and support for business page.

  • Defra: Sustainable consumption and production gateway page with information on the following topics: Encouraging more sustainable products, Integrated Product Policy, supporting innovation, and research into sustainable consumption and production.
  • DTI Technology Programme: Sustainable consumption and production has been identified as one of the key technology areas where the UK has potential to generate signifcant added value in global markets. As such, the programme provides support for new technologies addressing sustainable development.
  • Design Council: Explores and promotes sustainable design alongside other design issues. The website provides a detailed explanation of sustainable design.
  • The Centre for Sustainable Design: Conducts discussions and research on eco-design and sustainability in product and service development, through training, workshops, conferences, research, consultancy, publications, and via its website.

See also:

Updated: 11 September 2006