The Competitive Advantage of Ecodesign for Small Business

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Ecodesign means designing products that minimize environmental impact along the entire product life-cycle. This includes reducing resource consumption and waste during procurement, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal.

Ecodesign can be an effective tool for businesses seeking to update their product lines and stand out from competitors by offering innovative, “green” products. It can be particularly useful to smaller businesses where smaller size and flatter hierarchy make design changes easier to implement.

SMEs are Lagging in Ecodesign

According to Industry Canada, ecodesign practices are still rare within SMEs. Only 20% of small businesses and 35% of medium businesses use ecodesign, compared to 40% of large businesses. Past research has speculated this gap could exist because ecodesign: (1) involves significant business model change that is not possible within SMEs or (2) requires tools and procedures that are too expensive and complex for smaller businesses.

A recent study suggests otherwise. SMEs need not lag in ecodesign – it's well within their reach.

Research Shows SMEs Can Do Ecodesign

Researchers Michel Trépanier (INRPME and INRS) and Pierre-Marc Gosselin (University of Ottawa) conducted case studies on three SMEs. These studies consisted of coaching and supporting three small- and medium-sized furniture companies in creating new products through ecodesign.  Findings suggest ecodesign is quite accessible to SMEs. None of companies in the study had to commit significant financial resources or invest in staff training.

Six Tips for SMEs Pursuing Ecodesign

Based on their studies, researchers suggest six things SME owners and managers should consider when engaging in ecodesign:

  1. Few human and financial resources are required. None of the SMEs in this study had to invest significant cash in research and development, or invest in staff training.
  2. Ensure one person owns the design process. The presence of someone who is completely dedicated to the project is essential to ensuring its success. It’s likely that an existing employee, like an industrial designer, product development engineer, environmental technician or manager, already has the artistic, technical, and inter-personal skills needed for ecodesign. This person could steward the project.
  3. Time is the main ingredient. The ecodesign process requires all of a product’s environmental impacts to be reviewed via a life-cycle assessment. This analysis can be time consuming.
  4. Simplified life-cycle assessment is sufficient. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for assessing the environmental impacts of a product from procurement to disposal. A simplified LCA is less complex and involves fewer elements than a traditional LCA, but still gives a good overview of product impact. Because a high percentage of a product’s impact is usually attributable to a small number of LCA elements, the simplified version is sufficient for SMEs.
  5. “Green” supplies are readily available. The companies in this study were able to source all product inputs, including materials, finishing products and components, from their regular suppliers.
  6. Stakeholder collaboration is essential. When designing new, green products, managers should engage both internal stakeholders, like employees, and external stakeholders, like suppliers and consumers.

Cross-Industry Applicability for Ecodesign

All three SMEs in this study were from the furniture industry. Future research on SME ecodesign practices should examine the ecodesign process in other industries, where products may be more complex.

SME owners and managers can learn much from this study. Set aside the preconceived notion that your business cannot design green products. It may be easier than you think!

Source

Trépanier, M. & Gosselin, P. M. 2012. Éconception et PME: surgénéralisation, mythes et réalités. Entrepreneurial Practice Review. 2(3): 90-113.

Industry Canada. 2009. L’éconception: Innover pour demeurer compétitive. Accessed March 1, 2014 at https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/dsib-dsib.nsf/vwapj/oq00010_fra.pdf/$file/oq00010_fra.pdf.

This Research Insight was summarized by Marie Demode and the REDD team, and was originally published in French.