This week, I had the opportunity to see a demonstration of Autodesk’s new Eco Materials Adviser, a tool the company developed with Granta Design that is intended to help product designers make better decisions around material choices. Since the majority of a product’s life-cycle impacts are determined during the design phase, the tool has the potential to help create smarter, cleaner, and more efficient products.

Sarah Krasley, Autodesk’s product manager for sustainable design, said that before the team built the software tool, they spoke with their customers—designers and engineers who are creating everything from sneakers and watches to cars and industrial machines—to better understand how they go about solving product-design problems. “There are a host of priorities products designers are thinking about, including aesthetics, cost, performance, and safety,” Krasley explained. “We learned that if we were to create a successful tool, we would have to help designers consider design solutions and decisions much more holistically.”

As a result of these conversations, the Autodesk team created a tool that gives designers comprehensive information, detailed analyses, and a simulation environment that allows for experimentation. Designers can use Eco Materials Adviser to experiment through digital prototyping, allowing them to immediately see the life-cycle sustainability impacts of different design options. Using a cloud-based application, the tool can access current data, including cost, embodied energy, carbon footprint, and water impact. Krasley noted that the tool also provides comprehensive information on end-of-use options, such as how many pieces can be recycled, “down-cycled” (reprocessed into lower-grade materials), or disposed through incineration.

While the tool helps designers make appropriate choices about materials, it doesn’t tell them how to rethink the products—which means that the Eco Materials Advisor is more about incremental change than radical design breakthroughs. However, as Krasley noted, design breakthroughs should ideally occur when the design teams come together to think about products in a “whole systems” way. (Autodesk is providing information on sustainable design strategies in its Sustainability Workshop, a set of bite-size tutorial videos.)

In response to my question about the next wave of sustainable product breakthroughs, Krasley said the focus will likely be on “end-of-life conditions” as well as resource intensity, because that is where regulations are headed. “I am in a hurry to get more sustainable products on the market and am not sure it matters whether it’s a carrot or stick motivating companies to make changes,” she added. “I have seen regulatory pressures pushing companies to look at their carbon and water footprints, and product design plays a key role in getting in front of those regulations, as well as driving more innovative, sustainable change.”