8 Sustainable product design tips to get started

Moving towards sustainable materials and a circular economy

The design stage is the start of a long term impact on the environment, therefore sustainable product design across all industries is a MUST. Here we introduce you to basic concepts such as circular, cradle-to-cradle, lifespan and much more!

Even if you’re not an environmental activist type, in 2020 there are more than enough reasons to consider more sustainable ways of doing business. A peer-reviewed study in Lancet from three years ago discovered that pollution is still the largest environmental cause of death and disease, while our burgeoning consumerism keeps poisoning the air, water, and soil. Businesses can, and should, do their part to stop a negative trend by designing more sustainable products. 

1. Definition of sustainable

According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable design meets the present customer needs without endangering future generations in meeting their needs. When developing new products, companies, and their designers should strive to use more sustainable materials, while the processes themselves should be engineered to reduce both manufacturing waste and energy consumption. 

2. Improved product cycle

Probably one of the easiest ways to develop environmentally-friendlier products is to think beyond the immediate purpose and optimize the item’s whole lifecycle which consists of four stages – manufacture, transport, use, and dispose of. Each of these four stages leaves plenty of room to reduce both waste and energy. 

As this bachelor of art’s in product design teaches, the quality of each product comprises its conception, usability and emotional appeal, its ability to cater to the requirements of environmental sustainability, a suitable choice of materials and the product’s life cycle. 

To start your sustainable design process, you need to identify the lifecycle phase with the most negative impact and start from there. The more energy consumed or waste generated, the more negative the impact on the planet. 

3. Cradle-to-cradle approach

This concept encourages the designers to think about different ways their product can transpire into a new life when its current life expires. For some, it’s nothing short of a product reincarnation. While traditionally products were designed with a finite lifespan after which they go to a landfill, the cradle to cradle approach always includes the product’s rebirth. 

If the product can’t be recycled as a whole, at least its components should be removed and used in a new product. See for yourself how these successful and environmentally-savvy companies implemented their cradle-to-cradle designs.   

The benefits of implementing circular solutions in fashion

4. Disassembly-friendly design

The idea is that you design a product in such a way that its components can be easily removed and used in another device. If taking a product apart takes a lot of time or skill, it may never have the second or even third chance to start a new life as planned in your cradle-to-cradle strategy. A great way to inform consumers on how to give your product a new life is through an infographic. 

Certain designers, as the guys at Infostarters, for instance, specialize in transforming written explanations into captivating infographics that are more likely to be read and shared by people than just chunks of textual know-how, which can considerably facilitate disassembly efforts. 

5. Increased product lifespan

Developing products that last is another effective sustainable technique with many applications. Purchasing one pair of good leather shoes over five years consumes fewer materials and less energy than purchasing five pairs over the same five-year period. 

Even if a product isn’t “green”, it may have a lesser impact than many green products. For example, a ceramic cup can be used over and over and is definitely a more sustainable choice than a stack of disposable and biodegradable paper cups. 

Ethical tech products with Nimble: better features in a humble packaging

6. The problem of planned obsolescence

In the age where everything from disposable mobile phones to diapers is thrown away, not many products are made to last. However, what consumers fail to realize is that this buy-use-throw away concept is significantly made by the product design. 

While for manufacturers this “planned obsolescence” seems like a great profit strategy, as it motivates people to buy products and then buy products again. Still, the business profit shouldn’t come at the expense of the only environment we have on this planet. 

7. Green raw materials

Although products made of plastics will have a long life, in a way it’s a problem for itself. Cheap and mass-produced, plastic not only takes thousands of years to decompose but also contains toxins that seep into the environment. 

An ideal environmentally-friendly material should be non-toxic, like ceramics or glass, abundant and easily reproduced, like sustainably harvested wood, rapidly renewable, like bamboo, cork, natural rubber, and cotton, and low waste, like for example steel, which needs only 7 units of raw ore for 1 unit of steel, compared to aluminum that has a ratio of 85/1. 

Sustainability check. What is more eco: aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic?

8. Lightweighting techniques 

This strategy concentrates on making products less-material demanding, which has a positive impact on many fronts. It reduces the amount of energy needed to obtain materials, reduces the amount of material spent, and finally, the energy needed to transport and dispose of the item. To make products lighter in weight, designers use a number of techniques, for example using geometry that makes products strong with as little material as possible, and using hollow components. 

A product lifecycle planning is a complex concept and no single approach offers all the answers, but every time you design a more sustainable product you’re helping the global effort to reduce wastage and pollution. 

sustainable product design tips
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This post has been written by the guest blogger Jennifer Materson with the help of the team of editors at Ourgoodbrands.

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Jennifer Masterson

Jennifer Hahn Masterson is a lifestyle blogger and senior content strategist at Spread the Word Solutions, having a keen interest in a wide array of topics related design, fashion and travels. In her leisure time, she likes to immerse herself in a good book and try to satisfy her perpetual wanderlust.

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