How does global sustainability legislation affect product designers?

Our global community continues to battle two great crises: Covid-19 and climate change. At a time where it can be hard to focus on anything other than Coronavirus and its consequences, the global agenda on sustainability continues to gather fresh momentum. The movement to protect our planet has never been more present.

A notable and positive change we have seen over recent years is the explicit requirement to include sustainability as a design consideration in the briefs we receive. Sustainability has successfully transitioned from ‘nice to have’ to a primary objective in design briefs; as global brands battle to meet targets set out by regulations such as the ‘EU Circular Economy Package’ (July 2018) and ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (coming into effect 2023). The United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, public pressure and high profile media coverage are successfully forcing governments to develop legislation that focusses on the core principles of a circular economy: maintain, reuse, refurbish and recycle. In order to meet these regulations and uphold good circular economy values within the design process, there are 6 evident areas to address.
Figure 1: 'Sustainable Development Goals', United Nations

1. Material Considerations

Highlighted by an increasing number of high profile figures such as David Attenborough, Prince William and Greta Thunberg, the use of disposable plastic is a clear target in the climate change battle. Consumer’s now demand ‘green’ alternatives to their regular products, compelling both governments and brands to address the issue. In the EU, a goal has been set for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030, and for a reduction in single use plastics under the ‘Plastic Waste Strategy’ (2018). By 2025, ‘Extended Producer Responsibility' will be mandatory across the UK, forcing companies to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products. In the US, California has proposed a ‘Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act’ which demands all single-use products to be reduced or recycled by 75% by 2030. To meet these targets, manufacturers have a responsibility to dramatically rethink the use of plastics, which are historically poorly recycled and promote the use of alternative materials.

One option is to move away from LDPE and PP films (less than 5% and 1% of the material produced is recycled, respectively)1 towards widely recycled PET or recycled PCR (post-consumer resin). This will become even more prevalent with the introduction of the UK ‘Plastic Packaging Tax’ (coming into effect April 2022), which plans to tax businesses’ and manufacturers on the production or import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. Other options include avoiding plastics altogether and encouraging the use of metals and glass, which can be recycled infinitely. However, it is important to be aware of the ‘greenwashing’ effect, there is no one sustainable superhero material. Each material comes with a range of sustainability benefits and challenges, and material choices should be made on an individual product basis. For instance, heavier glass packaging may have a larger carbon footprint than plastic if transported over long distances, and many forms of PCR are not suitable in certain applications due to contamination.

The use of more sustainable materials in a product must not negatively impact the consumer experience and have a sound business case. If not, its impact will be lost as consumers switch to less sustainable competitors, or it will be abandoned if not financially viable. Therefore, sustainable alternatives must be considered against the additional costs and requirements to move to alternate manufacturing processes. Designers and their clients should continue to propose sustainable material options, with the goal to standardise their use in the near future.

The use of sustainable materials must not negatively impact the consumer experience.

Figure 2: 'What is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?', Zero Waste Scotland

2. Energy Efficient Designs

Consumers have never been so informed or engaged about the environmental impact of the products they purchase. The ‘EU Eco Labelling Regulations’ (2010) require a product’s energy efficiency to be clearly labelled; now more than ever brands must consider how they want to be portrayed in this increasingly eco driven world, and consider how regulations will influence point of purchase. Alongside labelling of efficiency classification, the ‘EU Eco-Design Directive’ (2009) calls for products that consume energy to be assessed on their environmental impact throughout their lifecycle. As brands strive to meet these mandatory energy efficiency standards, designers are tasked with optimising a product’s energy consumption throughout both its manufacture and its everyday use.

Consumers have never been so informed or engaged about the environmental impact of the products they purchase.

3. Excess Packaging

Together with the movement to break our single-use habits, excess packaging has been placed under scrutiny in the sustainability spotlight. Designed to create those special unboxing moments; superfluous packaging is no longer regarded as engaging to the conscientious consumer, but rather shunned for its unnecessary material waste. Even so, up to 40% of plastic currently produced is used for packaging.2 The ‘EU Essential Requirements for Packaging’ (2015) legislation was put in place to tackle these issues. The regulation mandates that packaging volume and weight must be the minimum required to meet safety standards and should be designed and manufactured to permit reuse or recovery at its end of life. Both essential requirements leave designers with a unique challenge; how do they create an engaging unboxing experience and on shelf presence, whilst reducing material use and enabling maximum material recovery? Whilst dominant branding is critical within traditional retail, increasingly designers must consider how packaging can also be optimised for e-commerce. Although not legislation, Amazon’s ‘Frustration-Free Packaging’ guidelines outline best practices within this area. Leading by example, Amazon has reduced their packaging waste through curbside recyclable materials and shipping products in its own containers (SIOC), eliminating the need for an additional shipping box.

40% of plastic produced is used for packaging.

4. Design for Manufacture and Disassembly

In our current linear economy, little or no responsibility is taken at a product’s end of life. Consumers, confused by how to dispose of their product correctly, often end up throwing it in landfill. To combat this issue and enforce some accountability, Japan introduced ‘The Home Appliance and Recycling Law’ in 2001, which applies to goods such as TVs and washing machines. An ‘old for new’ approach is taken by manufacturers and retailers, who are required to collect and recycle an obsolete product for every new unit they sell. Up to 89% of the materials in Japanese electronic products are recovered, or reused2, incentivising manufacturers to run disassembly plants as they benefit directly from the obsolete products. For the consumer, the scheme is comprehensive across Japan so that it becomes harder to throw your products in landfill than to recycle them.

In order to create an efficient system, designers must consider how to aid disassembly by avoiding the use of permanent snap fits and bonding, minimising components, avoiding post processing such as over moulding that makes materials hard to separate, and using standard fittings. In Japan, this is so critical that designers are sent to disassembly plants to observe the frustrations of a poorly designed product. As other countries consider circular economy legislation, many are likely to follow Japan’s lead. The challenge this incurs for designers will be to manage the trade-offs carefully between manufacture and disassembly. Many of the standard ways of making a product easier to disassemble also make it less energy efficient to assemble and more material-heavy – new design solutions will be required to find the best of both worlds.

Designers are sent to disassembly plants to observe the frustrations of a poorly designed product.

Figure 3: 'Circular Economy System Diagram', Ellen MacArthur Foundation

5. Design for Maintenance

Although a large amount of emphasis is placed on recycling our waste, this is actually the least favourable circular economy principle. Observing the values illustrated in Ellen MacArthur’s circular economy flow diagram (Figure 3), where the inner rings represent the best options, designing for maintenance and prolonged product life is the optimum solution. However, our current market promotes us to throw out items when they stop performing as intended; often due to our lack of knowledge and support from brands to repair what we have, over buying the latest model.

The ‘EU Right to Repair Regulations’ (coming into effect in 2021), aims to create a shift in this large scale product obsolescence. Under the new legislation, brands and manufacturers are required to provide maintenance information and spare parts for a defined period after a product is released to market. Designers will be tasked with providing solutions that work within the business case for repair. Maintenance will need to be considerably cheaper than the cost of buying the newer product model, and the user experience of repair should be easy and fluent to promote customer loyalty. Guidelines such as the iFixit Repair Manifesto outline best practices for designers to make products repairable.
6. Consumer Behaviours

The success of the global legislation policies discussed in this article relies on governments and designers understanding consumer behaviours and how to positively impact them. Increasingly consumers consider their carbon footprint when making choices, however they still fundamentally tend towards the most convenient option to fit within their busy modern lifestyle. The UK has proposed introducing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) by 2023, which incentivises consumers to return their plastic bottles to be recycled by refunding the 20p deposit they paid upon purchase. For this to be successful, the act of returning bottles must be accessible and hassle free or consumers will simply adopt the additional charge. In a similar vein, the success of curb side recycling is dependent on a consumer’s knowledge and behaviours. Designers should consider how they could prompt users to correctly separate materials, such as guiding the user to detach them in order to get into the product, before recycling.

The success of global legislation policies relies on governments and designers understanding consumer behaviours and how to positively impact them.


The push for a more sustainable planet will only become stronger as global legislation continues to be developed and enforced. Product designers are uniquely placed in their ability to address circular principles at every point of a products life cycle, from design and manufacture to consumer use and end of life disposal. As with any design project, the brief and final decision-making ultimately lies with the client, with the designer having varying levels of influence. Although it is not always feasible for brands to select the most sustainable option immediately, designers have a responsibility to keep exploring and pushing circular design principles where possible. As the consumer becomes increasingly aware of their environmental choices, it is critical for designers to keep up to date with the growing global sustainability legislation in order to help brands comply and deliver a more sustainable future.

Written by Eleanor Bainton, Industrial Designer

1. 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling), National Geographic, April 2018

2. Fast facts about plastic pollution, National Geographic, December 2018

3. Effective assessment of Japanese recycling law for electrical home appliances: four years after the full enforcement of the law, IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, 2005.

How does global sustainability legislation affect product designers?

Published on: 30th June 2021