Motta W. H.(a), Prado P.A.(a) and Issberner L.R.(b)
a) IBICT/UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
b) Brazilian Institute on Science and Technology Information – IBICT, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Keywords: eco-innovation; ecological crisis; decoupling; natural resources; waste; product lifetime.

Abstract: Contemporary society still bases much of its economic development on the extraction and consumption of natural resources. Industrial production, which uses these resources, has caused negative impacts on the environment. Not only because of the increasing amount produced, but also due to the product designs and manufacturing processes that do not account for these impacts. Some alternative proposals have emerged to manage environmental problems in industry reflecting major awareness of the limitations of natural resources, as well as the negative effects of greenhouse gases emissions and environmental degradation. Both aspects are primarily driven by the development of industry and society’s patterns of production and consumption. The growing concern regarding the ecological crisis has led to a new idea that a more sustainable economy requires an absolute reduction in the use of natural resources on a global scale. The decoupling formulation means a reduction in the rate of use of primary resources per unit of economic activity. This dematerialization is based on less use of material resources, energy, water and land, generating the same amount of economic output. New modes to confront environmental problems depend, at least in part, on environmental innovations. Also known as eco-innovations, this type of innovation can help to reduce the consumption of natural resources, greenhouse gases emissions and the generation of waste. This study proposes eco- innovation as a more efficient way of using less natural resources. The discussion takes into consideration the decoupling proposal.


Generation of goods and services are highly dependent on the use of natural resources. Discards, greenhouses gases emissions and waste become typical elements of the production process. These negative aspects raised discussions on the hyper-consumption culture and its impacts on the environment. Recent studies show how these aspects consequently lead to serious results such as global warming, increasing depletion of natural resources, and excessive waste generation (Léna, 2013; Van Den Berg, 2011; UNEP, 2011, UNEP, 2012a; Stern, 2007; Reilly, 2012; Veiga and Issberner, 2012; Latouche, 2012). All these – among other severe consequences – have been deteriorating living conditions on the planet.

Until very recently, there was an implicit belief that the physical expansion of the economic system and the consequent degradation of the environment could be unlimited. This belief also included confidence in an economic system that would provide whatever was necessary for continuous growing production and consumption. In recent years, science has proved this was a misbelief. Several studies confirm the existence of an ecological crisis and the need for urgent solutions (Léna, 2013; Van Den Berg, 2011; UNEP, 2011, UNEP, 2012a; Stern, 2007; Reilly, 2012; Veiga and Issberner, 2012; Latouche, 2012).

Opposing the conception of an endless economic growth, the concept of decoupling has been developed to encompass the notions of environmental limits, the life cycle of natural resources and the impacts of the global economic growth on the economic production (UNEP, 2011). Decoupling refers to a disconnection between the growth of environmental impacts and resource consumption to address the ecological crisis (UNEP, 2011).

Some of these studies highlight the need for a deep change and the current predominant approach of incremental improvements which is not enough (Pujari, 2006; Lastres et al, 2005). Within this context, eco-innovations stand out in the debates as one possible way to help the reduction of the negative impacts of production and consumption on the environment.

Eco-innovations may occur through different ways of combining materials and production processes, creating new products or proposing a new attribute to an existing product in a new production method. They can also be related to the discovery of new sources of raw materials, opening new markets and market niches, changing the composition and extending the lifetime of a product, among others. This will ultimately reduce or minimize the environmental impacts of the production/consumption processes. A review of industrial practices becomes an important element to identify areas where eco-innovative efforts should focus.

This paper is organised as a literature review. It aims at discussing the definitions of eco- innovation and how it can help to reduce environmental problems. Eco-innovation and decoupling proposals play an important role in these discussions.

Ecological crisis and decoupling

According to the European Parliament (2009), since 1980, the global extraction of abiotic and biotic resources increased from 40 to 58 billion tonnes in 2005. Scenarios for 2020 predict a full resource extraction of about 80 billion tonnes as the volume required to sustain global economic growth. The World Bank report prepared in 2014 estimated that cities with 1.3 billion tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) production in 2010 are expected to increase this production to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. These facts illustrated what scientific research has already pointed out about the origins of the current ecological crisis.

Over time, concern about environmental issues has led to the development of different concepts and terms such as sustainable development, green economy, industrial ecology and degrowth, among others, which reflect different econonomic, social, political and environmental interests. (Léna, 2013; Van Den Berg, 2011; UNEP, 2011; UNEP, 2012a; Stern, 2007; Reilly, 2012; Veiga & Issberner, 2012; Latouche, 2012).
Decoupling is embedded in almost all ideological or theoretical notions of the ecological defence battle. As reported by UNEP (2011), decoupling is based on the growing concern of society with environmental issues. It suggests a new model which seeks greater eco-efficiency through the production processes, resulting in a lower impact on the environment. This concern about sustainability and impacts generated by global economic growth introduces the idea of a growth disconnected from larger environmental impacts (UNEP, 2011). It means that a more sustainable economy requires an absolute reduction in the use of natural resources on a global level. In this sense, decoupling proposes a reduction in the rate of use of primary resources per unit of economic activity. It is a dematerialization based on less use of material resources, energy, water and land, generating
the same amount of economic output.

According to UNEP (2011), these impacts may be caused by deliberate interventions into natural systems such as land cover change and resource extraction, or by unintended side effects of economic activities, such as emissions and waste. Thus, a focus on decoupling requires attention both to the amount of resource use linked with economic activity, and to the environmental impacts associated with this resource use at all stages of the life cycle.

The proposal is manifested in two ways. The first approach is the “resource decoupling”. It allows an increase in the production of goods and services and/or quality of life with the relative decline of the exploitation of non- renewable natural resources, through the progressive reduction in the use of non- renewable physical resources per unit of output. The second is the “decoupling of the environmental impact”. It refers to negative externalities arising from the economic production and the subsequent environmental impact, which could be reduced with the development of innovations aimed at controlling the external impact and the replacement of inefficient production processes.

Definitions of eco-innovation

Recent literature on innovation introduced different concepts to describe a specific type of innovation, with potential to reduce the impacts on the environment. Some of these concepts refer to “green”, “sustainable”, “environmental” and “eco-innovation”. These terms have been used almost interchangeably, but Schiederig et al. (2012) point out that, though these concepts seem to address the same content, they slightly differ in their descriptive precision. These authors also highlight six important aspects in
the different concepts: innovation object; market orientation; phase; impulse; and level (Schiederig et al., 2012). The “phase” aspect refers to the fact that the full life cycle must be considered (for material flow reduction). This aspect is present in the eco-innovation definitions adopted in this paper, particularly in Kemp and Pearson’s (2007) and Reid and Miedzinski (2008).

One of the first uses of the term in the specialized literature was by Fussler and James (1996). They define eco-innovations as “new products and processes which provide customer and business value but significantly decrease environmental impact”. Some later definitions of eco-innovation added an approach from the industrial dynamics perspective. Andersen (2008) and Foxon and Andersen (2009), for example, define eco- innovation as an innovation that is able to attract green rents in the market, reducing the net environmental impacts, while creating value for organizations. The definition from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) underlines that the reduction of the environmental impacts does not need to be an intention of the eco- innovation. It is defined as “the creation or implementation of new, or significantly improved, products (goods and services), processes, marketing methods, organizational structures and institutional arrangements which
– with or without intent – lead to environmental improvements compared to relevant alternatives” (OECD, 2009). Building on this definition, Arundel and Kemp (2009) emphasize that eco-innovations are not limited to environmental motivations as economic reasons can produce environmental benefits as the side effect of other goals. In their own words: “Eco-innovations can be motivated by economic or environmental considerations. The former includes objectives to reduce resource, pollution control, or waste management costs, or to sell into the world market for eco-products” (Arundel and Kemp, 2009). Taking into account
both types of motivation, though, Ekins (2010) stresses that eco-innovation can be understood as a change that benefits the environment to some extent, but that can only be judged considering an increase on the economic and environmental performance.

Focusing on the product life cycle and in accordance with the purposes of this discussion, the present study adopts Kemp and
Pearson’s (2007) conceptualization for its theoretical grounding. Based on the definition of innovation from the Oslo Manual (2005)1, Kemp and Pearson (2007) developed a definition for eco-innovation, proposed at a report for an EU funded research project called “Measuring Eco- Innovation” (MEI) 2 . They describe eco- innovation as “the production, assimilation or
exploitation of a product, production process, service or management or business method that is new to the organization (developing or adopting it) and which results, throughout its life cycle, in reductions in environmental risks, pollution and other negative impacts of resources use (including energy use) compared to relevant alternatives” (Kemp and Pearson, 2007).

This definition adds environmental gains when compared to other technologies available for the same purpose (Kemp and Arundel, 1998; Rennings and Zwick, 2003; Kemp, 2009). However, Kemp and Pearson (2007) point out an important aspect in the concept of eco- innovations. For them, besides having a satisfactory environmental performance, a technology, product or service, has to be analysed in the context of the product life cycle and the supply chain.

Along the same lines, the final report to Europe INNOVA initiative on sectorial innovation informs that “eco-innovation means the creation of novel and competitively priced goods, processes, systems, services, and procedures that can satisfy human needs and bring quality of life to all people with a life-cycle-wide minimal use of natural resources (material including energy carriers, and surface area) per unit output, and a minimal release of toxic substances” (Reid and Miedzinski, 2008). Taking back to the phase aspect identified by Schiederig et al. (2012), both Kemp and Pearson (2007) and Reid and Miedzinski (2008) explicitly identify the need for a full life cycle analysis and a thorough analysis of all input and output factors, with the aim of reducing resource consumption. We understand that a comprehensive definition of eco-innovation must include this aspect. It is not
unusual that many products and services that are considered sustainable may have a production chain that ultimately invalidates the environmental benefits of its use (Kemp and Pearson, 2007; Kemp, 2009).


When considering the use of eco-innovation and its effects in the design and generation of a product, there must be a conscious decision and commitment to incorporate environmental sustainability into the company’s business strategy. However, for most companies, eco‐ innovation will involve a change in how they do business.

Nevertheless, this search for decoupling, i.e. a continuation of the economic growth vis-à-vis the reduction of the environmental impacts and the use of natural resources, still requires more eco-innovative solutions.

The eco-innovative product should also be designed to satisfy human needs and provide a better quality of life, minimizing the use of natural resources and the generation of emissions, waste and other environmental impacts.

Products go through a basic lifecycle that involves the stages of extraction of natural resources, the use of these resources in the manufacturing process, end-use and final disposal.

To maximize the product lifetime, that is, to extend its use phase, the producer can either make it more resistant (harder to break, for example) or easier to be repaired or upgraded. A sustainable end of life for the product can also be provided by creating a design where its disassembly could be more efficient. Raw materials could easily be reused, giving a longer life to these resources.

Products with enhanced durability would guarantee a better use of natural resources / energy and therefore have a lower environmental impact. Products with shorter lifetimes create more waste. After they are discarded, another product is needed in replacement, starting another cycle within a relatively short period of time. Of course to displace the notion of programmed obsolescence from “the business as usual” would require much environmental awareness and, perhaps, the involvement of civil society.

Eco-innovations can bring many added values, such as access to new emerging markets and the reduction of production costs along the value chain (UNEP, 2014b). When it comes to a proposal for extending product lifetime, both of these added values can be achieved. This new product can meet the demand of a market segment with customers who are interested and concerned about environmental issues, as well as its environmental and economic costs, during the whole life cycle. Processes can be optimized to extend product lifetimes, achieving the eco-innovation added value. In this sense, it could be important to adopt bar codes and labels providing environmental and social trusted information (in accordance with standards and legislations) regarding each stage of the supply chain (traceability) to customers.


This paper reviewed some literature on eco- innovation and decoupling, and, discussed how these could encourage the reduction of natural resources use and emissions, as well as waste generation. By presenting the relationship between the longer life design of products and eco-innovations, it exemplifies how this product attribute could be one of the eco-innovation concepts applied to the product design. It also aimed at relating eco-innovations to the decoupling proposal, pointing that the latter depends on eco- innovations.

Decoupling proposes a reduction in the use of primary resources of economic activities. As it is based on less use of material resources, energy, water and land, with the same amount of economic output. Eco-innovations result in reductions in environmental risks, emissions, pollution and other negative impacts of resources use.

As a more efficient way of producing more and better, using less natural resources, eco- innovations can be, at least in part, the means for a better alternative and through decoupling it can address the ecological crisis.

Further studies could be developed to clarify and strengthen the interrelationship between longer lifetime product projects, eco- innovations and decoupling. Empirical studies could also be developed to discuss eco- innovation’s (in)direct impacts on longer lifetime products.


Prado P.A. would like to thank CNPq (National Council of Scientific and Technological Development) for the grants provided.


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