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INTERVIEW #10 : Eco-design takes a strategic turn in Brussels

Posted on: 15.01.2019
by The EREK team

What are the keys to a successful support programme promoting eco-design in SMEs? 

EREK News asked Perrine Collin of Brussels-based UCM EcoDesign to tell us how they work with such a diverse range of companies (120 and counting!), from restaurants, travel agencies and event organisers to communication, IT and even woodworking businesses. The secret, she explains, is to walk companies through the process and find tailored solutions to help them rethink their offer and create green businesses. 


  • What motivated your shift from traditional product/service guidance to strategic guidance?

Part of our work is focused on integrating eco-designed solutions into a pre-existing company environment. This was our core activity, but after a few years we realised clients needed long-term, strategic guidance to achieve their ‘circularity’ ambitions without backfiring. Deposit systems – renting out packaging for a product such as a milk bottle – are a typical example of well-intentioned but ill-conceived schemes which have a vested interest in non-durability. How’s that for a sustainable business strategy? We decided our solutions would include careful analysis of sustainable business models. Our nine-month programme to help companies convert to a Product Service System (PSS) falls under this framework.

  • What does eco-design business support look like? 

We first scour sectoral literature for information, good practices to be synthesised in a report and presented to the company. We really take the time to sit down with them and provide a detailed explanation. It’s important to walk the company through all possible solutions – especially eco-design novices. Our guidance programme includes collective workshops where we reconstruct a business design, and where entrepreneurs can exchange ideas and tips. During implementation, we try to smooth the way by providing the right contacts, reminding them of proposal deadlines, making their case known to policy-makers who are always on the lookout for real-world examples, etc. We don’t provide financial support ourselves, but we guide SMEs through lengthy application processes for loans or subsidies.

We also offer sectoral support for federations and other groups of companies. For example, we developed an app centralising information and good practices for hairdressers at the request of their local federation, and with the input of their members. It is a very good way to multiply our impact within a single sector. 

  • How far do you have to go to get SMEs interested in eco-design solutions?

In the early years, we had to actively promote eco-design. But today, 70% of the companies we support have sought us out. Those we bring in ourselves now only account for a third of our projects. Nevertheless, we make a point of reaching out to companies who have never heard of what we do. Working with those already well-versed in the possibilities of eco-design is relatively easy. The real challenge lies in approaching and convincing sceptics.

  • How do you convince SMEs to go for eco-design solutions then?

It’s difficult to foretell what arguments will make the scale tip in our favour. Financial arguments and demonstrations of returns on investment always hold the most weight. We vastly appreciate subsidy schemes as they have the double advantage of providing companies with immediate, dependable gains and a formalised commitment to which they can be held accountable.

We also make a point of positioning ourselves as business service providers first. It so happens that our ‘services’ are contingent upon sustainability criteria. For instance, if you operate a food-truck, we can offer solutions for navigating local zoning restrictions. But these are business opportunities that are only available to you if you are sustainable.