Sustainable Design

Sustainable Design: What is it and why is it important?

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Sustainable Design: What is it and why is it important?

Sustainable Design: What is it and why is it important?

What makes a consumer buy? When asked that question, some common answers you might receive include the product’s price versus value, the product’s necessity, or other social factors, such as the product’s perceived affect on how the consumer may be viewed by others if they were to own that product. One other reason that is steadily gaining popularity, however, is the impact that product has on the environment. Recent research indicates that 61% of UK consumers believe that sustainability is at least somewhat important when considering a new purchase, and 59% of Britons say they are willing to pay more for sustainable options, resulting in companies having to review and adapt their approach to environmentally friendly products and services (CGS, 2020). This has led to a big increase in sustainable design.

Sustainable design is a design philosophy that encourages consideration for the environment at each phase of the design process. It can be applied to all manners of products, whether it be a physical object, a building, or something else tangible. Designers utilise sustainable design principles to ensure that their product has a reduced impact on the natural environment, as well as a positive impact on the health and comfort of those interacting with the product. The overall objectives of sustainability in design are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, to use environmentally considerate materials and manufacturing processes, and to minimise waste. This includes taking into consideration the impact the product may have on the environment once it is disposed of at the end of its life cycle (Davis, 2015).

Since the overall goal with sustainable design is to reduce, and ultimately eliminate the negative impact the product has on the environment, terms such as ‘eco-conscious design’ or ‘environmentally friendly design’ are often used in relation to the subject. However; it is important not to get confused between sustainable design and it’s closely related cousin, green design. Whilst in many other areas of environmental discussions, the term ‘green’ may be synonymous with sustainability, when it comes to design practices the two are not interchangeable. The biggest difference between green design and sustainable design is that green design focuses more on current issues and constitutes a narrower discipline, often associated with architecture, whereas sustainable design has a long-term approach to environmental conservation, taking into consideration the need to meet ongoing requirements as well as the consequences future generations may encounter (Sibirtseva, 2019).

With today’s advances in technology and an ever increasing need to protect the environment, designers are constantly creating innovative products following the sustainable design philosophy. From compression-moulded crockery made from cow’s milk (Howarth, 2016), to sneakers made from plastics that have been recovered from the ocean (Morby, 2017), designers, agencies, and even large corporations are making an effort to find new ways to provide sustainable solutions that will satisfy the customer’s demands. As consumers, we hold a lot of power to demand for change in the way we treat our environment. Nevertheless, according to PwC’s latest Global Consumer Insights Survey, it was determined that it is the government who bears the most responsibility for creating a sustainable world, with the responsibility then falling to consumers, producers, and manufacturers. This means that few expect the private sector to solve the issues of climate change and a need for sustainability on its own, but it also means that the corporate sector must get much better at joining with the government and consumer groups to promote and sponsor sustainable behaviours (PwC, 2020). 

 Although it may seem like a monumental task to convince the government, manufacturers, and consumer groups to join forces to fight for sustainability, efforts to reduce the negative impact our products have on the environment are constantly being made. In 2019, the UK government called on experts to help set a new standard for biodegradable plastics, amid concerns that manufacturers were misleading the public when using terminology that caused confusion regarding the meaning of ‘biodegradability’. The word ‘biodegradable’ implies that the material will break down harmlessly, but it can take hundreds of years for some plastics to in fact do so (Carlson, 2020). This was a major issue for sustainable design, as it created scepticism and mistrust amongst consumers and producers of products using so-called biodegradable materials, and caused problems for waste-processing plants when mislabelled plastics found their way into the mix. By October 2020, a new standard (PAS 9017:2020) was set by the British Standards Institute which states that plastic will have to break down into organic matter in open air, and ninety percent of the organic carbon contained in plastic needs to be converted into carbon dioxide within two years in order to be classified as ‘biodegradable’ (British Standards Institute, 2020).

As a consumer, you can continue to support and promote the use of sustainable design by consciously choosing environmentally-considerate options. Before purchasing from a business, try to take a minute to check out their company core values and practices. Look to align yourself with businesses that offset their carbon footprint, use sustainable materials, adopt clean energy, and try to reduce their waste product. These are just a few companies that already do so: We Are Tala make activewear from recycled water bottles and recycled raw materials; Tony’s Chocolonely offset their emissions and collaborate with non-profit organisation Justdiggit to ‘regreen’ dry lands in Africa; and clothing brand Patagonia consistently ranks as one of the most sustainable brands in the sport and clothing sector due to their commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2025, their high use of recycled materials, and all their electricity comes from 100% renewable energy sources (Patagonia, 2020). Supporting local businesses is also a great way to encourage sustainable design. By increasing our demand for environmental change and the implementation of sustainable practices, manufacturers and governments will be obliged to take more action on ensure that sustainable design becomes a more integrated part of our daily lives, and the source of the products we purchase.  

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