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Insight - 10/24/22

How to Incorporate Sustainability into Design

7 min

By Meghan Day

How to Incorporate Sustainability into Design

Overflowing landfills, giant islands of plastic floating in the ocean, the rise in material culture and consumerism, climate change, and more have alerted us as a planet to the importance of sustainable design. Our actions as individuals, as companies, as municipalities, all impact the health of the environment and the living beings it supports, including humans. What is sustainable design, and how do we incorporate sustainability into design? Fortunately there are a lot of sustainable strategies for designers, and many ways they can minimize and even reverse their impact.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals give an excellent overview of key sustainable impact areas to consider across industries. Image via un.org.

What is sustainable design?

Sustainable design is an approach to design that demonstrates key principles of sustainability, which are mainly concerned with minimizing the depletion of natural resources and increasing product lifespans. There are many strategies for achieving these goals, though any given product labeled as being ‘sustainable’ may feature one, several, or (sadly) none of these strategies.

Sustainable impact is calculated by reviewing the impact of the product in four areas: ecological damage, human health damage, resource depletion, and social impact. Sustainable designers ask themselves what the impacts in these four categories might be at each stage of product development, and how they might be minimized or avoided. They do life cycle assessments to determine those impacts precisely, and to compare the impact of one product to another.

The Product Life Cycle

The product life cycle includes four main stages:

  1. Raw materials: the impact of extracting raw materials
  2. Manufacturing: the impact of manufacturing the product, including material processing, transportation and factory processes
  3. Use: the impact of consumer usage of the product, including the potential duration of use
  4. End of Life: the impact of disposing of the product, including the potential for recycling and material recapture
The product life cycle helps designers calculate potential impacts at each stage. Image via pre-sustainability.com.

You will sometimes see the product life cycle split into 5 or 6 stages but they are all fundamentally the same. Sustainable design looks at each of these stages and reviews the potential for impact in each of the four impact categories above. Does the extraction of the raw materials involve human health damage? Does the use of the product harm the environment? Can the materials be recaptured at the end of life, or do they constitute permanent resource depletion? 

This framework aids the designer in decision-making at every stage. While there is always some degree of impact, decisions about what materials to use, the durability and source of those materials, the form and assembly of the product, the manufacturing processes involved, and many more.

The Sustainability Toolbox

Here are some of the key tools in the sustainable design toolbox. This is not a comprehensive list but includes the tools we find especially powerful. You’ll notice that many of them reference and depend on one another, and this is no coincidence. Many of the tools support and facilitate the use of additional tools. While it may not be possible to implement all of them, it is always possible to take advantage of sustainable strategies to participate in responsible design. More and more designers agree that it is irresponsible not to consider these strategies. Many of the decisions that influence social and environmental impacts are controlled in the early design phases of the product, well before it gets to the consumer. This is where we have the most power to make a difference.

Materials & Use

Dematerialization

If you review life cycle assessments, you’ll quickly see an unsurprising pattern emerge: fewer materials means fewer impacts. It’s a pretty reliable guideline. Considering the volume of material needed for a product and making an effort to minimize that volume is a great way to lower its impact. Could your form be streamlined in some way? Play with the structure to learn the smallest amount of material you can use while preserving functionality.

Longevity

Longevity is not only about durability, though this is of course important to allow a product to survive over time. Longevity means that, for whatever reason, people want to keep your product over the course of their lives. They want to treasure it and pass it on to others. Perhaps the product can be repaired or rarely needs to be replaced. Duration of use is an incredibly powerful metric in impact calculations, spreading the impact over decades.

Recyclability

Designing a product to be recyclable is a tricky proposition, in part because the recycling system is limited and varies from one region to another, and in part because it depends highly on being able to isolate component materials at the end of life. It requires thinking about the key materials of the product, how they will be assembled, any adhesives or hardware that may be involved, and whether or not they can be disassembled. While it may not be possible for every element of the design to be recycled, the fraction that can could be improved with thoughtful material and manufacturing choices.

Production Strategies

Disassembly

‘Design for disassembly’ is a popular phrase in the industry at the moment, and for good reason. This design approach creates products that are built to be disassembled at the end of life to facilitate recycling. Many of the hurdles of recycling arise from materials that are theoretically recyclable in isolation but impossible to handle when indefinitely bonded to another material. It can make repair an easier service option for the product as well. Many products, especially those with technological elements, lock the user out upon failure or end of life. Design for disassembly solves this problem of access and empowers the user to maintain and repair the product as needed.

Modularity

Modularity allows a product to be reconfigured to suit the needs of the user. It is tied to longevity, disassembly, repairability, and recyclability. A piece of furniture that is modular is more likely to work in multiple homes across a user’s lifetime. A modular storage system is more likely to have a damaged element replaced than to be discarded altogether. This approach is compatible with a service model of design as well.

Repairability

Objects that can be repaired have an exponentially longer lifespan than those that cannot. Think about clothing and shoes from the turn of the century, products that would serve the user for decades and still be passed on. This strategy is tied to disassembly, longevity, modularity, and service models. It can be achieved through empowering the user to repair the product themselves, or it can be part of a service system that is offered by the producer.

Service Models

Single-use products are a major contributor to landfill waste, and circular systems that allow users to share a product or service give a product a more productive lifespan, serving far more users. Citibike is a great example of a service model, it allows users to borrow bikes when they need them, and users who rarely bike don’t need to purchase a bike they won’t use. That the product stays under company ownership means that they have a lot of control over how the product is maintained over time and disposed of at the end of life. The responsibility for the product is shared between the owner and the user.

Producer + Consumer Responsibility

Stewardship

While warranties are available for certain categories of products, they are rare in commercial goods and very rarely extend to cover the entire lifetime of the product. Increasing producer responsibility is one tool to discourage design for obsolescence or rapid failure. When the producer gets the product back at the end of life, suddenly many opportunities for recycling, repair, material recapture, and re-manufacturing emerge. 

Reusability

Products that can be repurposed for alternate uses once their original function has been fulfilled, or perhaps in concurrence with their original function, offer the user versatility and efficiency. Perhaps it is not the entire product but a specific component that has a second or third life after the first. These strategies are often discovered by consumers out of innovation or convenience, like a damaged cup or bowl that can be repurposed for organization and storage, but they can be planned by the designer as well.

Try it!

The strategies don’t stop here but we hope this gives you a taste of what sustainable design can look like. Consider these strategies, and assess their potential for use in your design projects. Assess your own purchases for signs of these tools in use. It can be challenging but it can also trigger great innovations and a fundamentally better design. It is deeply rewarding to create and support sustainable design.

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