Design Ethics: Sustainability in Design

April 30, 2021
4 min read

Sustainability is trending across all industries right now–from food to fashion to technology. It’s a buzz word and marketing differentiator for many brands. You can’t read an article, listen to the radio or scroll through Instagram without encountering claims from companies that they are making better choices for the environment. Unlike other trends, which often seem superficial or frivolous, this focus on sustainability is based on an urgent need and is likely to stick around as other trends fade. We’re reaching a critical point in the history of the Earth and many of us are finally understanding that if we don’t make meaningful change now, we might not get another opportunity to.

Over the last 5 years, consumers have become increasingly aware of what they’re buying, how they’re made and the impact of that production on the environment. It’s risen to the top of the priority list in consumers’ decision-making. In fact, a majority of consumers are willing to pay more for products that are created using sustainable practices, than ones that are not. So, brands that are implementing these ethical frameworks aren’t doing it from an entirely altruistic standpoint–which is ok! This large-scale adoption of sustainability as a core value is beneficial to the company, the consumer and the world. This is how true change happens. The companies who refuse to acknowledge the ways in which they impact the world will be perceived negatively in the near- and long-term–turns out, the brands that can’t adapt to become more sustainable probably aren’t going to be sustainable.

How does the role of the designer fit into all of this? Sustainability is about making better decisions now to improve the health of our world and to lessen the negative impacts on the world in the future. Consumerism and hyper-consumption of products is a huge driver of processes that damage our environment and result in a global waste problem that has reached its limit. We’re reaching the end of what would be considered a “linear economy”. For some time now we’ve been taking raw materials from the planet, fashioning them into desirable–but badly designed–products and then disposing of them rapidly. Obviously, this linear way of behaving doesn’t nurture and replenish the systems that sustain us. Many leading thinkers in the area of sustainability believe that we should be moving towards a circular economy, which, in a nutshell, means that the end of a product’s life is considered at the beginning. It considers how to use less and give more back, how to leverage materials and processes that rebuild and contribute to the world, rather than just take away. According to the EU Science Hub, “it is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product”. That’s quite the responsibility for designers. Or if you look at it another way, it’s an amazing opportunity to make a difference. 

There are opportunities to address sustainability in all fields of design. If you are a graphic designer working on a print project, your first question should be, does it need to be printed? What is the lifespan of the end product? If it’s likely to be trashed on the same day it is distributed, is there a better digital execution or a solution that allows this product to be reused or repurposed? If it does need to be printed, what print company are you using? Do they incorporate sustainable printing practices? Have you chosen a paper stock that can be produced sustainably? Have you considered the toxicity of the ink being used? Where is it being printed and how far does it need to be shipped?

If you’re a fashion designer, can you source ethically-produced fabrics? Are there better dye processes out there that have a neutral or positive effect on the environment? If you’re in product design, how can you create items that have longevity or that can replace single-use disposable solutions? Can your product be repurposed for other uses?

Lelya Acaroglu writes an excellent piece on the sustainable design strategies we can employ to help us make better design decisions from the get-go. They include, but are not limited to, design for modularity, design for longevity, design for disassembly, design for circularity and design for reusability. All of which consider products as infinite items which are part of the system we’re all in, not simply something we use and forget about. Another helpful resource when thinking about design decisions is the EcoDesign Strategy Wheel. If you’re a designer and unsure where to begin, this strategy wheel can really help to put structure on the thought process as you launch into a new design project.

A little can go a long way right now. If designers take a moment to ask these questions at the beginning of every process, we can look forward to more thoughtful and considered products that will be beneficial for businesses, humans and the world.

© 2024 Soubriet Byrne & Associates, Inc.