Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

If products are to be designed effectively with little or no negative environmental impact, then the designer needs to consider the impact of the product throughout its entire lifecycle. This means that designers need to consider how the product interacts with the environment in material production, manufacture, transportation and packaging, use and disposal. Ideally, as McDonough and Braungart state, the designers should consider the life of the product’s materials beyond the first product lifecycle, in order to ensure that they can serve a useful purpose indefinately, rather than being downcycled and eventually ‘disposed’ of. If redesigning an existing product then designers might research these interactions based on the existing products, or if designing new products they might consider using methods such as Lifecycle Brainstorming or Edwin Datschefski’s product storytelling method, whereby the design team develop the life story of a unit of the product to help identify the possible impacts and events that may occur. This can be useful because the reality of many products lives does not follow the exact route planned during the design phase, and so alternative eventualities should be considered.

The next step is to establish exactly what the impacts of the product are, how big they are and what they are caused by. By doing this designers can identify where the greatest need for improvement lies and so focus their efforts effectively. Full LCA can be extremely time consuming and complicated, and so is often not practical in the high speed product design and development process. However, a number of simplified systems exist that allow products and designs to be assessed and compared quickly and easily.

The tools most suited to the product design process are:

Eco-Indicator 99

Eco-Indicator 99 is the most recent version of the method, which using a simple set of inventory tables and standard impact data for materials and processes, allows a basic assessment to be performed. Its main drawback is the limited number of impact indicators, but it is nevertheless an effective tool for those who do not wish to invest the money in a more accurate tool.


SimaPro follows a similar system to the basic Eco-Indicator 99 method but as a software programme it is quick and easy to use, and has a far more comprehensive database of impact data. It also allows more experienced users to develop their own impact scores for materials and processes not included as standard.

Solidworks Sustainability Xpress

Leading CAD software SolidWorks has developed an plugin that allows designers to evaluate the environmental impact of the components that they have designed and compare different design configurations.

A beta version of the plugin is released on the SolidWorks labs website, for evaluation and debugging purposes. Once the final version is released in the fall, the add-in will be incorporated into the CAD software of more than 1 million SolidWorks users worldwide.