In the field of sustainable product development, a new perspective for approaching sustainability has been advocated, challenging designers and engineers to aim beyond ‘reducing unsustainability’. Several design strategies – including Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle – have been suggested for developing truly sustainable, or ‘beneficial’, products. But do these strategies help in developing such products, and how to assess their ‘sustainability’? Based on a review of the objectives in nature-inspired design, we argue that assessing environmental sustainability is not straightforward. Whereas both Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle build on the perspective of ‘achieving sustainability’, current life-cycle assessment-based tools are geared towards reducing current impacts. As a consequence, existing tools are insufficiently equipped for the purpose of the assessment: they do not cover some of the main results that nature-inspired design is set out to accomplish. To be able to include these results, we propose two new constituents to current life-cycle-based product assessment: assessing against conditions of sustainability and assessing ‘achievement’, the extent to which these conditions of sustainability have been achieved. Furthermore, the product context needs to be included for assessing beneficial impacts. This article discusses how these constituents can contribute to an assessment tool that enables designers and engineers to assess the development of environmentally sustainable solutions.
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