World Intellectual Property Day 2020 – Innovate for a Green Future

Design rights and sustainability

Innovative design of products and packaging have a big role to play in reducing carbon emissions and addressing the climate emergency. Many companies and individual designers across the globe are already investing heavily in coming up with new and improved eco-friendly designs. These include the development and commercialization of products that are reusable and recyclable or that are made from recycled materials; high-performance products or components that are more streamlined and efficient, for example in the transport sector; innovative packaging materials; and new, more efficient, means of delivering services.

design
Businesses and governments around the world are adopting the principles of the circular economy, which puts emphasis on recycling, reuse, and on making products from natural, sustainable materials. This has led in turn to an emphasis on circular design. (Photo: HoWei / GettyImages)

Good design brings benefits to consumers, business and the environment. According to an article in the McKinsey Quarterly in February 2020, “companies that excel at design grow revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry peers”. The McKinsey study also found, however, that 90 percent of companies are not reaching the full potential of design, in part because of a lack of design leadership.

Innovative design of products and packaging has a big role to play in reducing carbon emissions and addressing the climate emergency.

Several factors drive design innovation in the environmental sphere. These include growing consumer awareness and demand for green products and services; development and (re)discovery of renewable materials; new technologies for manufacturing; and growing use of artificial intelligence-based tools based to map needs and identify areas for improved efficiency.

Whatever the industry or product, design rights (whether registered or unregistered) can harness innovative design. Design rights (known as design patents in some jurisdictions) are widely used to protect everything from marketing logos and packaging to the shape of furniture and vehicles and the user interfaces of computers and smartphones. Design rights are available in many jurisdictions and through regional systems such as that administered by the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI)  Protection can also be obtained internationally using the WIPO-administered Hague System for the International Registration of Designs, which currently has 74 contracting parties and covers 90 countries.

The Hague System biggest users

The list of the top 10 applicants in 2019 pdf illustrates the flexibility of design rights for business: the list includes companies from sectors as diverse as electronics, consumer goods, automobiles and jewellery.

Ranking of applicants Number of designs in published registrations (2019)

SAMSUNG ELECTRONICS CO., LTD

929

FONKEL MEUBELMARKETING BV

859

LG ELECTRONICS INC.

598

VOLKSWAGEN AG

536

PROCTER & GAMBLE CO.

410

KONINKLIJKE PHILIPS ELECTRONICS N.V.

371

GWENDOLYN KERSCHBAUMER

322

GILLETTE COMPANY LLC

252

THUN S.P.A.

241

PSA AUTOMOBILES SA

221

Circular design

The circular economy is key to tackling the climate emergency, cutting costs and creating jobs. It puts an emphasis not just on recycling but also on reuse, and on making products from natural, sustainable materials.

By re-thinking and re-designing, we can accelerate the transition to a new model that doesn’t just ‘eke out resources a bit longer’, but is restorative and regenerative by design.

Dame Ellen Macarthur, Founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Businesses and governments around the world are adopting the principles of the circular economy. In the European Union, for example, the Circular Economy Action Plan was completed in March 2019. Its 54 actions span waste management (with targets for different types of recycling), extended producer responsibility schemes and prevention measures. 

The concept of the circular economy has led in turn to an emphasis on circular design. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes circular design as “improvements in materials selection and product design (standardisation/modularisation of components, purer materials flows, and design for easier disassembly”.

In 2017, the Foundation produced a Circular Design Guide for innovators to help them create elegant, effective, creative solutions for the circular economy. As Ellen Macarthur said: “By re-thinking and re-designing, we can accelerate the transition to a new model that doesn’t just ‘eke out resources a bit longer’, but is restorative and regenerative by design.” The guide comprises 24 methods, as well as visual and written resources. Four examples of businesses that are doing that are DSM-Niaga, Ecovative Design, Philips/Rauarchitects and Patagonia.

Good design brings benefits to consumers, business and the environment.

First, DSM-Niaga (“again” spelled backwards) is a joint venture between DSM and two entrepreneurs in Geleen, the Netherlands. It has developed a unique means of manufacturing bulky items such as carpets and mattresses, which traditionally involve various materials that are hard to separate and recover. For example, it is estimated that each year 35 million mattresses are disposed of in Europe and some 20 million in the United States. Working with Auping (the largest independent bed manufacturer in the Netherlands), DSM-Niaga has developed a modular mattress made of six components, each of which can be replaced, meaning the mattress lasts longer and can be recycled at the end of its life.

ipday
Ecovative Design produces bio-based packaging
and other products made of mycelium (i.e. mushroom
roots) that are fully compostable. Mycelium acts like
a natural, self-assembling glue that can bind biomass
together. It has multiple applications from ranging packaging,
to textiles, to skin care.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ecovative Design)

Second, the company, Ecovative Design produces packaging and other products made of mycelium (i.e. mushroom roots) that are fully compostable. Mycelium acts like a natural, self-assembling glue and can be used to create materials to replace products such as petroleum-based expanded plastics and particle board made using carcinogenic formaldehyde. Ecovative Design already works with companies such as IKEA, Dell and Gunlocke and is now investigating further applications, such as insulation, consumer products and new bio-materials.

Third, the pioneering pay-per-lux model developed by Philips CEO Frans van Houten and architect Thomas Rau, a circular economy visionary, offers  an intelligent and affordable lighting system, which allows businesses to simply pay for the light they consume by designing out overcapacity. This novel “product-as–a-service” business model offers some insight into how we might consume light in the future. Businesses pay a fee for Philips to handle their lighting needs, from design, equipment, and installation, to maintenance and upgrades. By retaining control of the lighting equipment, Philips can improve maintenance, reconditioning and recovery. The system “saves upfront costs associated with installing energy-saving lighting … and provides the most efficient and cheapest lighting possible – which encourages the uptake of energy-saving lighting”. The system is being used by the metro system in Washington, D.C., RAU architects in the Netherlands and The National Union of Students in the UK.

And fourth, the adventure clothing company, Patagonia offers another aspect of the circular economy in the way it is promoting the care and repair of its products so they last longer. The company offers tips on how to maintain waterproof outerwear, quick fix guides and advice on how to repair it. It also promotes sharing and recycling through its Worn Wear Program, which states: “Keeping clothing in use just nine extra months can reduce the related carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30 percent.” The Program includes the opportunity to trade in used clothing that’s in good condition.

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Patagonia, the adventure clothing company, promotes the care and repair of its products so they last longer. It also promotes sharing and recycling through its Worn Wear Program, which includes the opportunity to trade in used clothing that’s in good condition. (Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia)

Other fashion companies are also promoting sustainability. For example, in January 2020 Diesel announced its “For Responsible Living Strategy,” created with Eco-Age consultancy, to respect people and the environment. One of the Strategy’s four pillars is “Stand for the planet” and commits to climate action, environmental stewardship and improving reuse and recycling rates, among other initiatives.

One company that has embraced circular design principles is the furniture manufacturer and retailer Inter IKEA Group. It aims to become 100 percent circular, as its Head of Circular Development Malin Nordin said in an interview on the company’s website: “We are committed to designing all of our products to be 100 percent circular from the beginning, using only renewable or recycled materials, and to developing circular capabilities in our supply chain.” The company has identified 32 high priority materials which have the greatest circular potential and products are designed to generate as little waste as possible. It is also focusing on designing products that can change function – for example, baby cots that turn into toddler beds, as well as modular furniture.

Protecting design innovation

Different jurisdictions provide different means for protecting industrial designs (defined in legal terms as the ornamental aspects of articles). In some countries, such as China and the United States, applications are examined and registered as design patents. Other countries provide industrial design protection through deposit or registration procedures subject to a formality check. Design protection may also be available at a regional level. For example, in the European Union, the registered Community design (RCD) right can be obtained quickly and relatively cheaply for "any industrial or handicraft item including packaging, graphic symbols and typefaces."

Whatever the industry or product, design rights (whether registered or unregistered) can harness innovative design [and] are widely used to protect everything from marketing logos and packaging to the shape of furniture.

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Recognized for its eco-friendly design, the Nico Less
chair is made of felt, 70 percent of which comes from
recycled plastic. The chair is protected by a
Registered Community Design (RCD) right.
(Photo: Courtesy of Primoz Jeza Studio)

In some jurisdictions, it is also possible to obtain limited protection for certain designs without registration in the form of unregistered designs. Designs may also be protected as works of art under copyright law.

The flexibility of IP rights for designs is a major advantage for designers of environmentally friendly products and services, as design rights may be available for a broad range of innovations, from new types of furniture, vehicle improvements, to innovative packaging, products made from new or improved materials or features designed to improve efficiency.

An example of a product recognized for its eco-friendly design is the Nico Less chair, which was shortlisted for the 2018 DesignEuropa Small and Emerging Companies Award. The chair is made of felt, 70 percent of which comes from recycled plastic bottles. The Nico Less chair is designed by Primož Jeza and, like all the shortlisted DesignEuropa products, it is protected by an RCD.

The flexibility of IP rights for designs is a major advantage for designers of environmentally friendly products and services, as design rights may be available for a broad range of innovations, from new types of furniture, vehicle improvements, to innovative packaging, products made from new or improved materials or features designed to improve efficiency.

The next few years are likely to see greater focus on the circular economy, with a wider range of products made from renewable and recycled materials, innovative design features and new means of delivering services. The flexibility of design rights, as well as other IP rights, will ensure that innovators will fully benefit from marketing these products to the benefit of business, consumers and the environment.