Do you use straws, coffee-to-go cups? What brands do you support? What food do you eat? What will your choices cost future generations – the earth?
The world as we know it is disappearing. Across the globe, we are experiencing some of the warmest temperatures on record. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. Wildfires, tsunamis and heatwaves are just some of the more extreme outcomes. Yet despite global recognition of the challenge, humanity is failing to address this issue.
This makes sustainability everyone’s problem and consumers everywhere are taking up the challenge. As they begin to spend their money on ‘green’ and eco-responsible brands, businesses are waking up and sustainability is making it into board rooms. This is elevating the role of sustainability in design—where it all begins.
Design reaches beyond ‘take, make, waste’
So, what is sustainable design? And why is it now more important than ever before for the design community establish the role of sustainability in the design process?
Sustainability is not a trend. It’s not something you can buy.
Sustainability is not a constraint. Sustainability is a mindset.
Design is a very distinctive area of expertise—it reaches into every aspect of product development and brand creation, from the sourcing of raw materials, across the supply chain all the way to presentation, customer service, user interaction, and the management of brand perceptions.
Now, as circular economy principles turn corporate accountability up another notch, the reach of design is extending further, with cradle-to-grave product management beginning to give way to cradle-to-cradle thinking.
Clearly, building sustainability into a solution can be hugely impactful … can make a big difference. But where do you start building sustainability into design?
Sustainability is a journey
Many businesses have established products and solutions. They apply design to update their products incrementally, improving materials, aesthetics and ergonomics, and adapting usability to fit changing customer needs. There are many opportunities here to make more sustainable choices but there are no silver bullets; a clear roadmap to true sustainability is essential.
Some companies are already crafting their roadmaps.
Unilever is rethinking plastic packaging to fit circular economy principles, looking into water smart products for water-stressed living, and implementing sustainable practices in key agricultural sectors. Ørsted, the largest energy company in Denmark, has transformation from a fossil-fuel based energy company to a global green energy company in the past decade and aims to be carbon neutral in its energy generation and operations by 2025.
What the extent of these companies’ sustainability efforts illustrate is that sustainability is ultimately not something you can just weave into a solution or tack on to the end of a process, it’s a mindset.
Chairs and cups – the act of creating
The breadth and depth of the impact of design is reflected in the backgrounds and in the mindset of the people at designaffairs. Many, like me, come from distantly related fields. I studied mechanical engineering. Back then, I thought design was all “chairs and cups”. It’s not. It’s about listening to the user’s voice and creating meaningful products for them. And with the right mindset, what we create – be it a product (physical or digital) or a service – can generate value throughout its lifecycle, and far beyond its intended use.
However, it takes a different mindset from the one we currently have. Right now, mass production; consumerism with its need to be trendy and own the latest, best, shiniest ‘things’; and capitalism with its race to profit at any cost, dominate.
The Pope said it: “An economic system lacking any ethics leads to a throwaway culture of consumption and waste.”
Greta Thunberg said it: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth—how dare you!”
And Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking at the 2019 Climate Action Summit said it: “We have the tools to make our actions effective. What we still lack … is the leadership and the ambition to do what is needed.”
It must be for us, not just them
As conscious consumption grows, consumers are taking a deeper, more thorough look at how they are contributing to sustainability.
Sustainable design goes beyond taking an idea to prototype and creating a physical or digital product, it looks at the process of creating the product and everything the product impacts: its environment, the users using it, and the outcomes of the action of using it.
Sustainability in design focusses on creating something for ‘us’ – the collective ‘us’ – rather than just creating for ‘them’, the consumers, which is a pure profit play.
Curiosity and consciousness are key
At a personal level, I am very conscious of the fact that to create I must take resources from the earth – scarce resources that are hard or even impossible to replenish. Although I may not get to make the final choices, I feel strongly that we, as designers, can influence the decisions that are made by companies and manufacturers by highlighting responsible choices and final accountability.
Half of all greenhouse gas emissions and >90% of biodiversity loss
and water stress come from resource extraction and processing.
The cradle–to–cradle product ideal goes far beyond today’s norm of just looking at how to dispose responsibly of an end-of-life product or factoring in how long it will take to degrade; it looks at componentizing the discarded product, and reusing those components, putting them back into the lifecycle of the economy. Increasingly, these are responsibilities producers, manufacturers—and designers—can no longer pass on to the user. We as designers are obligated to design sustainably. We have no excuses.
Join me in part 2 as I take a look at how designaffairs is baking sustainability into its design culture and how we are helping our clients think about sustainability to truly get ahead of the curve.