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Tools to help you design more environmentally responsible products

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cradle to cradle

Ever since the publishing of Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s tour-de-force manifesto on the complicity of industrial designers in the filling of our landfills, product companies have been searching for ways to minimize the impact of their products while still maximizing their profits. With the help of books like this, as well as new fields of thought and a few online tools, that careful balancing act is becoming far less daunting.

One such field of thought, dubbed biomimicry by its founder and champion, Janine Benyus, is transforming the way scientists, engineers and designers approach thorny challenges. Biomimicry encourages them to first consider how nature may have already solved the very same problem. Too much calcification in your factory’s chimneys? Perhaps you should find out why seashells (made from calcium) are not infinitely large. These relatively ‘simple’ creatures must have a way to prevent further calcification of their shells that is harmless to the environment and readily available (read: free) in ocean water.

Dr. Benyus runs a consultancy called the Biomimicry Guild, which works with clients to uncover solutions to the particular problems they face. There is also the non-profit Biomimicry Institute, which offers a lot of downloadable resources on the practice. (See some great videos of biomimicry in action in Nick’s post on using nature as inspiration in product design.)

A trio of other online tools have emerged in the last few years to simplify the process even further.


Ecolect offers ways to discover more sustainable materials. Its site includes an online directory of various pre-vetted, eco-friendly materials. You can also subscribe to the GreenBox™ service for about $900 a year to receive a box of 10 or so new environmentally friendly material samples every three months. Ecolect selects samples that are indicative of larger trends in the industry.


Sustainable Minds is an affordable, web-based service that helps you estimate, evaluate, compare and track the environmental and human health performance of your products, even in the earliest stages of design. Essentially, you can upload a bill of materials (BOM) and indicate which materials you’re considering for its contents, including their source locations and other facts. You can then calculate the footprint of your product, including how it stacks up in areas like disposal and reuse, and compare it to other benchmarked products. Try tracking it against past revisions of your own design to chart your progress in developing a more environmentally friendly product.


Sourcemap is an open source project working to document the carbon footprint of all major products on the American market. Its goal is to help people make more informed decisions about what products they buy by providing a Google Maps mashup and some nifty carbon footprint calculators that show the true supply chain for those products. The team behind this project also sees an opportunity for manufacturers with their acts together to use sourcemap as a platform for proving their environmental chops.

It’s a brave new world in eco-manufacturing. If you haven’t read Cradle to Cradle, I highly suggest you start there. When you’re ready to apply your learnings, try some of the tools mentioned above.

Know any other resources that should be on this list? Please let us know.

About the Author

Marc Escobosa

As the lead designer for nearly all major releases of the Arena application from 2001 to 2012, Marc played the chief role in crafting the user experience for all Arena ...

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