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Interview #8: Eco-design, the long-distance race that has to be won

Posted on: 18.12.2018
by The EREK team

Active in environmental protection for some 35 years, there is unlikely to be many organisations in Europe with a better pedigree in this fast-changing and complex field than the Basque Environmental Management Company (Ihobe). It has long supported the Basque Government’s environment policy and efforts to promote a culture of sustainability.

Ihobe is active in diverse fields, from sustainable production, consumption and construction to eco-design and eco-innovation to resource-efficient industry and waste management, as well as environment policy, climate change, biodiversity and soil pollution. Ihobe values credibility and involvement, effective management and teamwork, commitment to change, and circular economy principles encapsulated in the philosophy, “from our environment to our environment”.

EREK News spoke with the company’s director, Jesús Losada, about how eco-design, in particular, fits into modern resource-efficient industries, especially smaller players.  

  • Why is eco-design important for SMEs? How does it help them become more competitive?

Around 80% of the environmental impacts as well as costs are defined at the product design stage. Eco-design is essentially good product design with a long-term vision that benefits the customer because it anticipates their needs. Yet ‘good’ in this sense is not always well conveyed in low-cost premium markets focused on the short term and immediate returns. It’s a long-distance race full of obstacles, but steadfast companies that embark on this path are reaping results. Internally, it promotes greater capacity for innovation, anticipation of the market, and cost reductions. Externally, it means a better brand/image, new markets (B2B, B2A or B2C), and more competitive products. However, when SMEs are not responsible for the design of their products, their ability to integrate the life-cycle approach focuses on reducing material costs in particular, which in Basque companies comes to 61% of the total. The incorporation of new materials, secondary materials or efficient technologies (e.g. ‘near net shape’) has become the main challenge.

  • How long has Ihobe been working in the area of eco-design? What initiatives and programmes do you implement that are relevant to SMEs?

For 20 years we have been supporting the introduction of eco-design in Basque SMEs. We have encountered two main problems: the complexity of the methodology, and low demand for eco-designed products. Eco-design demands intense collaboration between the R+D+i, production, sales, business and environmental units of a company in order to integrate the life-cycle approach into products. That is why we work on three levels. First, we ensure that there is a critical mass of industrial technicians trained in eco-design. This is mainly done through the Basque Eco-design Hub, which has encouraged almost 200 young graduates to carry out eco-design projects in factories over the last decade. Second, valuing eco-design “frontrunners” and using our tools to boost confidence in the market. Ihobe has developed more than 30 eco-design methods and externally verified standards, including ISO 14.006 ‘Eco-design Management’ for projects with Basque factories. The third and last key activity has been to bet on the creation of business demand for eco-design and the life-cycle approach. To this end, we promoted the Basque Eco-design Centre with ten Basque multinationals in the process of ‘greening’ so that, through Green Supply Chain Management, SMEs can move towards a life-cycle approach.

The results speak for themselves. Today in the Basque Country, there are 150 eco-design SMEs and we expect the turnover of eco-designed products to more than double in less than five years to reach €7 billion a year. ,For every euro invested in eco-design,€181 in additional turnover is generated annually by industrial companies.

  • Do you think a more innovative approach is needed to conceptualise and promote eco-design?

Eco-design promotion in European SMEs is a complex and on-going issue. The ingredients for success are, first and foremost, continuous government support for eco-design in the very long term (at least 20 years), and to convince SME managers that integrating the life-cycle approach into the design of their products and parts is important in order to anticipate the long-term needs of their customers and  differentiate themselves from the competition through innovation. When we show our companies how their European competitors are ahead of them in eco-design, the involvement is immediate. Synchronising with market demand is also important. Even if an SME is prepared to put eco-designed products on the market, it is important to choose the right moment. Drivers such as the EU Ecodesign Directive, the environmental requirements of large corporations, green public procurement, and new business models (also based on digitisation) are generating opportunities in specific market niches that can be addressed by SMEs.

The new ISO 14.001:2015 requirement to integrate the life-cycle approach is an ideal excuse for many SMEs to open up to eco-design, as long as it is approached as a value-creation strategy for the business.

For more information on developments and work on ecodesign at IHOBE, follow the link!