Critical perspectives on sustainable product design

The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) held its first Deep Dive on sustainable product design. The ensuing conversations revealed a burning need for collaboration between not just designers, but everyone involved in the creation and use of products.

As a designer and a concerned citizen, I’m heartened by this example of growing awareness and conversation on the subject. Let’s be perfectly honest, though: at this point, the world is beyond just a need for awareness. We need action. 

The discourse at the conference underscored the reality that designers and players at every level of commerce can, and should, work together to start making change.

Uncomfortable as it may be, our industry plays a role in endangering humanity’s future. 

Human activity has already destabilized our world’s climate, with a sliding scale of increasingly catastrophic and unpredictable effects to follow based on how quickly we cut emissions. 

The issues are complicated: greenhouse gas emissions, chemical toxicity, plastic waste, carcinogens, water shortages, unfair labor practices, and more are all produced by our daily habits and the industries that feed them.

In the face of all this, the Deep Dive did not belabor impending doom and guilt, nor did it offer a silver bullet. What it did was facilitate an invigorating exchange of news, experiences, and lenses from practitioners who have gotten their hands dirty working on solutions.

Reflecting on what I heard and discovered, I was struck by three themes of contemporary sustainable product design efforts that I will explore below. Tying them all together is the idea that sustainable development is both an obligation and an opportunity.

1. Everything is connected. We exist in systems that are more interconnected than we might realize, and our actions can cause harm elsewhere that we can no longer ignore. Exploring circular economy models can create innovation and strengthen brand relationships.

2. Core values drive outcomes. Regulations and consumer attitudes are shifting to ditch companies that don’t care. Prioritizing the right values and metrics can revitalize a project or even a whole organization.

3. Incremental is insufficient…but important. We can’t go the distance with baby steps alone, but we should learn from them to start making strides.

Taking action requires a realistic understanding of both the current reality and the ideal future. I find these paradigms incredibly useful for those interested in taking a practical yet optimistic approach to making a difference.

Let’s examine each theme in more detail:

1. Everything is connected

The world is made of complex systems. Just as an organism has many interconnections with its ecosystem, so too does a product exist within a value chain, and a business within an economy. As many organizations are realizing, it’s increasingly risky to fixate within the silo of a given discipline or product offering. As an industrial designer, I was educated about the importance of the big picture through design thinking. But in practice, it’s all too easy to settle into making pretty boxes for those who will pay for it. I took the following examples as reminders to think beyond my traditional lane, and push for broader integration when solving problems.


Design helps align incentives

David Dombrowsky at GSK highlighted that every department within an organization has varying incentives, and designers have a responsibility to understand those points of view. On the other side of the coin, an organization that actively places design at the center of its constituent parts stands much to gain in the way of flexibility. By allowing the design process to take into account all the relevant needs — from within the organization, from outside partners, and especially from the consumer — the resulting product can be so much more effective and purposeful.

Know your surroundings

Coordination of differing viewpoints is emerging as a linchpin in designing for sustainability. The speakers from IDEO also highlighted the power of taking a broad view of a system to create innovation. They shared that one of the first steps IDEO takes with clients interested in greener products is to step back and help them contextualize their position within the surrounding flows of materials, impacts, and incentives. This step, the speakers contend, is critical due to the various factors that contribute to the success of a truly green product. Technical feasibility, business feasibility, user desirability, organizational resiliency, and systemic circularity must be understood to be addressed in a design. To improve a system, we must listen and learn from it.

Circularity is biomimicry

The idea of embracing interconnection and interdependence in business need not be daunting. In fact, nature gives us a blueprint that has existed since the beginning of life. Seth GaleWyrick of Biomimicry 3.8 illustrated this with the analogy of a simplified food web.

Graphic showing everything in natural world is connected
Seth GaleWyrick illustrated how natural ecosystems embody the circular economy.

A well-functioning ecosystem is a perfect model for the concept of circularity. The beauty of this model lies in viewing waste as food.

The woodpecker uses the tree as a home without destroying it, and after it leaves the nest, the bluebird takes it as its home. Throughout the bird’s life and after its death, its droppings and body are reclaimed by a host of decomposers; nutrients are returned to the soil, enabling trees to grow. There are many of these trash-to-treasure interactions, and the majority of them are mutually beneficial. In nature, zero-waste is the status quo, and life flourishes because of it. We can look to that paradigm to ensure the continued survival of our businesses and communities.

Looking to plants and animals for inspiration has led to elegant solutions for many technical challenges as well. A classic example is the Japanese bullet train design that improved acoustics and aerodynamics by mimicking the form of a kingfisher’s beak. GaleWyrick and his team take such cues from nature as their guiding principle. For the design of FLOR carpet tiles, their re-imagining of carpet adhesive based on the collectivism of many natural systems not only decreased material usage, but also enabled user-friendly installation, easy repair, and improved recyclability.

As demonstrated by these examples and many more, taking the mindset of “what would nature do” creates opportunities for innovation directly at the product level as well as in the arrangement of harmonized systems.

2. Core values drive outcomes

In the course of discussing what’s needed for meaningful change, a theme we often came back to was that of values. Beyond individual actions, many outcomes are driven by the direction of the system in which the actors operate. Accordingly, the values and priorities of an organization or project, along with the degree to which they are expressed, are critical to the success of any initiative. I believe this is a key point not to be missed by would-be sustainability advocates: new ideas may fall victim to old priorities if they’re not properly addressed.

A new meaning of growth

In the largest sense, the effect of values on outcomes can be seen in the most basic of assumptions behind our modern economy.

At its core, commerce at large is currently focused on constant growth. This is taken as a given, despite being at odds with the homeostasis focus of the natural ecosystem — the one that stays conducive to life, that is. When growth is seen as the singular positive outcome, it’s only a matter of time until preservation of the commons goes out the window.

But how would we set up an economy which recognizes that the well-being of humans is dependent on the well-being of this planet and all life on it?

Circular graphic illustrating Doughnut Economics
Doughnut Economics measures success as balance rather than growth.

The economist Kate Raworth has proposed an alternative. Replacing the endless growth chart as a metric for success, the doughnut chart puts forth a “Goldilocks zone” of continued comfort. This metric places negative values not only on shortfalls in human development, but also the of overuse of resources. The idea of using balance rather than growth as a performance indicator is also seen in the more mainstream Triple Bottom Line principle of people, planet, and profit (whose creator, incidentally, is now pushing for even more radical rethinking).

In his talk, Rhys Thom from IDEO reminded us that “you are what you measure.” Whether it’s the world economy or a single worker, tracking the right kinds of success is an important step to making change.

Sustainability as business model goal, not added feature

In a practical sense, focusing on core values might mean revamping an entire organization to prioritize its environmental commitment, which comes with both risks and benefits. At a more granular level, it means that even a well-intentioned design effort is often constrained to minimal improvements if sustainability is simply another feature tacked on to the brief. Placing it at the core of product development allows the flexibility to navigate obstacles — possibly by shifting the product’s entire business model.

Philips’ efforts on lighting as a service provides a prominent example. Rather than sell lamps destined for a landfill, Philips signs contracts to install and maintain the lamps while charging for their use. The decrease in upfront cost lowers the barrier to entry for new customers, and the subscription model incentivizes Philips to repair and recycle the physical assets. Such an alignment of financial and environmental benefits was made possible by flexibility in addressing the business model behind the product.

Design as an educator and catalyst

Expressing an intent to move a business toward sustainability is one thing — following through on the commitment is another. Provided we are educated on the topic, this is another area where design has an opportunity to lead change by helping others understand sustainability.

Just as design firms have successfully spread the Human-Centered Design mindset of focusing on user needs, they can now advocate for Life-Centered Design. This sentiment was echoed by many at the IDSA conference: that the focus of our fundamental design principles should evolve to encompass the entire society and ecosystem of the beloved user. However, especially as a design consultant, the biggest obstacle to eco-friendly design is often getting hired for it in the first place. In that sense, proactively promoting and clarifying sustainability consulting services is a necessity for getting partners and clients on board.

This starts with actions as basic as creating educational material to outline the problems we’re facing and what the path forward looks like. Hlynur Atlason of Atlason Design exemplified an engaging pitch. He used relatable storytelling and illustrations to explain not only why sustainable product design matters, but also to clarify the first steps forward for a prospective client. There’s a lot of information behind this topic, and it can sometimes seem conflicting, so concisely demonstrating familiarity is critical for winning trust and confidence.

Part of this communication includes acknowledging the different levels at which an organization can make changes and how design fits into that picture. This relates to the next point:

3. Incremental is insufficient, but important

These days, innovation is a go-to word for many businesses. In reality, we see some products that truly disrupt the market, and others that pass off tweaks as “innovation.” In a similar way, “greening” just one part can make little or even negative progress toward a truly sustainable product.

When it comes to the environment, small changes are not enough: human industry needs disruption. But it would be naive to think that everything will change overnight. This can be a daunting paradox: we simultaneously need small steps and giant leaps. I believe the best way forward is to use the more achievable victories as a rallying point to align on the possibility and promise of more considerate core values.

Continuum of progress

From a pure numbers standpoint, it’s clear that efficiency improvements to the status quo aren’t enough to fight back global climate catastrophe. At the same time, we have to start making an impact immediately, and systems this large don’t change at the flip of a switch (at least not in desirable ways). This is where an everything-at-once approach comes into play: taking immediate first steps while gearing up for an overhaul.

Graphic showing Pivot, Change and Disrupt arrows
Adapted from graphic by Hlynur Atlason.

One of the practical graphics shared by Atlason addresses the types of changes design can help a company make: Pivot, Change, and Disrupt. Each requires an increasing level of commitment along with increasing positive impact and returns. The big point, though, is that all of these tracks can start today. 

We didn’t have to look far to find a case study in immediate action. Speaking at the conference, Noah Murphy-Reinhertz of Nike illuminated the thinking behind their new Space Hippie footwear line. Nike has taken the initiative of categorizing the types of environmental impact they must reduce, with carbon emissions as the top priority. Understanding that changing the supply chain would take time, the Nike team set out to create a design using only existing factory scraps with low-energy processing methods. The resulting shoes are fresh and desirable, not in spite of the constraints but because of them.

Meanwhile, a company called Loop is bringing longer-term system re-thinking to life. This new shopping platform, explained designer Jasmin Druffner, makes reusable containers for consumer packaged goods of all types. Their delivery subscription platform provides a one-stop shop for customers to easily order products and return the containers, just like the milkman of old. The refill model lets brands deliver their products in packages that look great instead of cheap — and spreading that manufacturing cost out over 100 uses, for example, averts 99 single-use items from being created and discarded for the same price. Subscription delivery brings the benefits of brand loyalty and recurring income. No less remarkably, initial feedback is showing that customers are primarily drawn to Loop packaging due to the improved aesthetics, not just a sense of duty to the environment.

Photo of traditional vs sustainable deodorant
Loop delivers and reclaims refillable packages that are more appealing than their single-use cousins.

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