Sustainability in product design: the time is now

Sustainability is more than a mere buzzword, and deserves more than lip service. Climate change is real, and if we don’t reach targets laid out in the Paris Agreement and reach Net Zero within the next two decades, the planet could be headed towards catastrophe. 

We are all now aware of the problem of waste, but how can we reduce the negative impact of our everyday products on the environment? And, crucially, can we do this without compromising on aesthetics and functionality? 

Materials: sustainability at the source

Product design is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Materials form the core of physical products, and the choice of materials is a key consideration. Sadly, non-biodegradable materials are everywhere, and continue to pollute our planet. Our clothes, for example, contain microfibres – miniscule pieces of plastic derived from materials such as polyester, nylon and acrylic. These products shed the microfibres, and they make their way into our water systems, the air that we breathe, and even the food we eat. 

These microplastics can last for hundreds of years. Recycling won’t solve this problem; the microfibres, if recycled, will form another product only to be released into the environment again, in the same way. Phasing out microplastics from the production line will help to reduce the amounts in the ecosystem.

Materials that are biodegradable are far kinder to the environment than their non-biodegradable counterparts. Bioplastics are made from renewable sources such as corn starch, proteins and sugar cane. This is more eco-friendly than plastics derived from fossil fuels – crude oil, natural gas and coal. Many are purporting that bioplastics could be the solution to the plastic problem. It can be found in food packaging, and in the textile and medical industries. However, there are some concerns regarding the manufacturing process – bioplastics require significant amounts of agricultural land to produce it, although at present less than one percent of total agricultural land is used to cultivate plant-based bioplastic sources.

Organic materials could also provide an alternative material for a variety of products. Mycelium composites come from fungi spores derived from certain mushrooms, and are 100 percent biodegradable. The composite material can be used in various industrial applications. MyFoam is a foam-like material derived from mycelium, for use in a range of products such as packaging, leather, and bricks. 

Using reclaimed materials helps to reduce waste that would otherwise go to landfill.

Cork is fast-becoming a popular eco-friendly material, and not just for cork stoppers and notice boards. This versatile material can be found in unique pieces of furniture, flooring, book covers and footwear. Derived from the bark of cork trees, it is harvested, heated and filed into strips, with waste cork being ground down for other applications. And, most importantly, the trees are not harmed during the harvesting process, and the bark regenerates itself following the harvesting season.

There is also a burgeoning trend for reclaimed materials, whether that be furniture made from reclaimed wood, or buildings constructed with reclaimed stone. Using reclaimed materials helps to reduce waste that would otherwise go to landfill. It can also be more energy efficient than the process of sourcing new materials, and can be sourced locally to reduce transportation costs (and the associated carbon emissions).

Embrace the circular economy

The concept of the circular economy rejects the current paradigm of ‘producing, using and throwing away’, replacing it with a new ideal of production and consumption that emphasises reusing materials and extending the life cycle of a product. The aim is to reduce waste and to move away from the tendency to use cheap materials in the manufacturing process, that quickly wear out or become obsolete during a short space of time. With the manufacture of everyday products accounting for around 45% of CO2 emissions, we must tackle this issue as a matter of urgency.

Designers need to adopt a sustainability mindset from the beginning of the product design process – also known as ‘eco design’ or ‘lifecycle thinking’. 

Decisions made at the product design stage determine the environmental impact of that product – how energy efficient they are (if they are energy-using), whether the materials can be reused, repaired or recycled, and the life cycle of that product. So, designers need to adopt a sustainability mindset from the beginning of the product design process – also known as ‘eco design’ or ‘lifecycle thinking’. 

At present, design is often ‘human-centred’, looking at the product from the user’s perspective to better understand the user’s needs and how they behave. Against this backdrop, sustainability needs to be integrated and a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the individual – who is ultimately going to use the product – the impacts on communities of people, and the impact on the environment and the wider ecosystem.

It goes without saying that product designers need to consider how easy it is to recycle the product (including disassembly) and the CO2 emissions released during the manufacturing process – for example, sourcing locally wherever possible and making use of any technological innovations on offer that would increase efficiency, including in the supply chain. 

Consider environmental certifications

Environmental certifications have begun to pop up over recent years, in recognition of the desire on the part of consumers to ‘buy sustainable’ and the increasing pressure on brands to meet sustainability standards. The Ecolabel Index is a portal listing all of the ecolabels in the United Kingdom, many of which are based on industry or government standards. 

And this also has an international dimension – ECOS, for example, is an NGO advocating for eco-friendly technical standards and policies, including eco-design and eco-labelling. Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) also offers environmental certifications, the main suite of standards being ISO 14000.

Designers should take a proactive approach, and become part of the dialogue – whether that be through consultations with government and international bodies, or within their particular industry.

Product designers should consider meeting external environmental standards and embedding this into their design process. This is not only to win over consumers, but rather to become genuinely eco-friendly at all stages of design – as well as being able to benchmark products against an external framework. Designers should take a proactive approach, and become part of the dialogue – whether that be through consultations with government and international bodies, or within their particular industry.

Aesthetics in design versus the environment?

It is all very well aiming for sustainability and meeting regulatory standards, but there is one big elephant in the room: is it possible to design a truly eco-friendly product without compromising on aesthetics, or even functionality? This could be seen as a question of ‘ethics versus aesthetics’. The designer is a creative, and perhaps it could be argued that ethical notions of sustainability constraints will ‘box in’ the designer’s creative process. After all, if no-one wants to buy your product because of how it looks, who cares if it is eco-friendly or not?

Added to this is the trend of eco-friendly products having a certain ‘look’ – beige and green colours, a certain ‘organic’ sensibility, lots of wood and woodchip and cardboard. What does this actually have to do with sustainability? It could in fact be a form of greenwashing, with no eco design substance at all. Meanwhile, solar panels on buildings can be considered an eyesore, and energy efficient buildings have to prioritise eco-friendly elements, with aesthetics giving way. Perhaps this calls into question the fundamentals of product design – how important is aesthetic appeal? And will eco-design be considered as important as functionality, as our society becomes more and more concerned with preserving the planet?

“We don’t love something because it is non-toxic and biodegradable, we love it because it moves the head and heart.”

Lance Hosey

Architect Lance Hosey, in his book ‘The Shape of Green’, examined the relationship between sustainability and beauty, putting forward principles for aesthetically pleasing sustainable design. “We don’t love something because it is non-toxic and biodegradable, we love it because it moves the head and heart.” For Hosey, sustainable buildings should also be beautiful, because beauty is an essential element of design, without which the product (building) is likely to be discarded, or perhaps never come to fruition in the first place.

No-one said that designing for sustainability would be easy. There are many hurdles to be overcome. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the mindset of business owners, key stakeholders, and the design community at large. A shift in thinking is urgently needed, so that eco-design becomes second nature. It is only then that we will truly begin to see real results.