Climate change is on everyone’s mind. Or so it should be. After all, this is the only planet we have.
The good news is that product design companies are in a unique position to make a real positive impact.
Product designers can protect our planet and people’s health through sustainable design choices or eco-design.
But what is eco-design?
The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable design or development as:
«Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.»
When creating new products, both companies and product designers can advocate the use of environmentally friendly materials and design products that minimize waste and energy consumption.
We all agree that getting our products to market is great, but what if we can also contribute to and support global health through design? We have in front of us the possibility to shape a better tomorrow with some sustainable product design strategies.
DDesign to improve product life cycle
One of the most effective ways to design more sustainable products is to think beyond the product itself and optimize the entire «life cycle» of the product.
Each and every product goes through a life cycle of at least 4 stages:
Introduction. Growth. Maturity. Decline.
Each of these stages offers opportunities to minimize waste and save energy.
So, our recommendation is to start the design process by taking a step back to reflect on the product life cycle. Find the life cycle phases with the greatest negative impacts and focus on improving these in the design process.
Here are some questions to consider when examining the life cycle of a product:
How much energy does it take to acquire the raw materials? What about assembling the product?
To transport the product to stores or ship it to consumers’ homes?
How much energy does the product consume?
How much waste does the manufacturing process produce?
Will the product be recycled or reused at the end of its useful life?
Will the product biodegrade quickly?
Once we know the answers to these questions, we can begin to identify the major weaknesses in its sustainability.
Generally, the more energy that is expended or the more waste that is produced, the more negative the impact on our environment.
Designing «sustainable» products doesn’t just mean avoiding toxic chemicals and choosing to build from recycled materials. Product manufacturing, transportation and use also affect product sustainability.
We must find design solutions that reduce energy waste and energy expenditure over the life of the product. Then, ask ourselves what will happen to the product when that life is over.
Options to keep the product out of the garbage:
Cradle to Cradle
This approach invites the designer to think of ways in which the product can move on to a new life when the current one ends. Think of it as the reincarnation of products.
Traditionally, products were designed to have a finite end to their life. After that, the product goes to a landfill. This cradle-to-grave life cycle is not appropriate.
We need to think about recycling the product into something completely new. Or removing and reconditioning the components. Or even turning them into fuel to produce something else.
And let’s not forget sustainable packaging design. After all, once the product is unpacked, the packaging is usually discarded.
Design for disassembly
Design for disassembly is self-explanatory. Simply put, it means that it is designed with the intention of providing easy access to components that will then be reused elsewhere. It is a strategy that supports Cradle to Cradle thinking.
If it is too difficult to disassemble the product, it may never live that second or third life that was dreamed of in its planning.
Choosing sustainable materials
The most obvious way to design a more environmentally conscious and responsible product is to choose «green» materials.
The first criterion to check when choosing product materials is how it will perform in the role you have chosen for it.
Look for materials that are:
Non-toxic. Sustainably produced or recycled that do not require a lot of energy.Abundant. Materials that exist in large quantities are a better and more sustainable option. Avoid «rare» materials or we risk depleting a resource from our planet. And, as a material becomes scarcer, the price tends to skyrocket. This also makes abundant materials an economically smart choice.
Easy Reproduction. Materials that can be easily reproduced are, by definition, sustainable. Think wood (which can be grown, harvested and regrown) as opposed to coal (a finite resource) that will inevitably run out.
Rapidly renewable. Rapidly renewable materials are not only reproducible but reproduce quickly. These materials (such as bamboo , cotton, natural rubber and cork) are incredible alternative options for greener sustainable designs.
Low waste. Some materials generate much more waste than others. Choose materials that produce less waste.
Recycled, recyclable or biodegradable. Opt for materials that can live another life, either as another product or by reintegrating back into the earth.
Strategies to minimize resource consumption of the next product design:.
Prioritize energy efficiency.
Plan to make the product as energy efficient as possible. It can be done through efficient engineering, using sustainable energy sources and with the use of low embodied energy materials.
Lightweighting is a strategy that focuses on making the product with less material, therefore making it lighter. This has a positive environmental impact across the board: from the amount of energy needed to acquire the materials, to the volume of resources consumed and the amount of energy needed to transport and dispose of the product.
Extending product life.
Designing a product to last is a very effective technique. Some products that are branded as «green» may be less sustainable than one that lasts a long time.
Sustainable product design can make a difference:
Companies and product designers have the power to make decisions that have a positive impact on our environment and, by extension, on us.
We leave you with a green design checklist.
– Optimize the product life cycle.
– Design for disassembly and plan for the next life of the product.
– Choose abundant and sustainable materials.
– Make recycling part of the design strategy.
– Avoid materials that increase pollution.
– Prioritize energy efficiency with:
sustainable energy sources and
materials with low embodied energy.
– Use fewer resources by reducing the weight of designs accordingly.
– Design products to last (and last over time).