Sustainable Design: What Is It And Why Is It Important?

Sustainable design is gaining more popularity lately. Design comes in many forms and it’s all around us. Graphic design, product design, fashion design, etc all affect our lives as well as the environment in some way. These designs can either have a direct impact or an indirect impact. Let me explain.

An example of a direct impact is having a big carbon footprint or using unsustainable materials like plastic. Indirect impact refers to when a design promotes a certain product or lifestyle which is not good for the environment. This includes adverts.

It’s usually money that stands between sustainability, designers, and consumers. Bringing down the cost of eco-friendly materials and sustainable products will prove to be very important in the years to come. 

At this moment, society does not live in a way that protects the environment and most companies do not care if their product or way of operating harms our only earth. All that needs to change. Thankfully, I do feel we are at a turning point where individuals and even businesses are becoming more aware of environmental issues and how every single one of us is having an impact on the planet.

If you feeling inspired and want to become a more sustainable designer, I would recommend listening to these podcasts about sustainable and climate design.

Why Do We Need Sustainable Design?

The main reason for designing sustainably is to protect the planet and all its biodiversity (including us). Our existence is on the line. If we continue to emit this much carbon dioxide and throwing tonnes of plastic into the oceans mankind will probably become extinct somewhere in the nearish future.

But I’ve got good news. The story of mankind doesn’t have to end like that. It’s possible to create a world where we peacefully live alongside nature and one where the natural environment thrives as well.

But you might be thinking what does design have to do with any of this?

Most of the time we design and create new things, we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is one of the causes of climate change. CO2 is emitted at every stage of production. It’s needed to extract materials, manufacture them, transport them, and dispose of them. And that is the reason designers must start designing sustainably.

And, now that you know why sustainable design is important, let’s get into how we can make it a reality.

Also read: 10 Reasons to Care about the Evironment

product lifecycle infographic

General Principles

I’ll break it down for it into the different stages that most products must go through. You must make different considerations at each stage.

01. Designing

You should have the environment in mind right from the start. From the time you sit down in front of that blank page and you start brainstorming ideas. Ask yourself how you can minimize the negative impact of your design. The planet shouldn’t suffer because of our creativity and intelligence.


Unlike most, products should be designed to last a long time. Not to be replaced after one or two uses. Quality over quantity. Make products durable so they don’t have to be replaced very often. It might mean products are more expensive but if you think about it, it’s more cost-effective in the long term.

If we wish to turn into a low-waste society, products must have a very long lifecycle.

Quality does not only apply only to products, it applies to every type of design including fashion and architecture. Nowadays, companies are looking for repeat business to keep customers coming back for more. Nevertheless, this is not good for the planet and it must stop. Patagonia is a great clothing brand that proves you don’t need cheap, low-quality clothes to have a successful brand. They produce high-quality garments and even repair them when you need to.


This is a concept taken from circular design. A good practice for product designers is to design products that can be disassembled. This has two purposes. First of all, it reduces transportation costs since they would take less space and second of all, each part could be reused to make new things (when it reaches the end of its life).


You can’t forget about the packaging. You should try a minimalistic approach to use the least amount of packaging. From what I’ve seen, this is one of the best ways to go about it.

Additionally, the packaging says a lot about the product, and your values so design it carefully.

Some other questions to ask yourself are if it is biodegradable and if it can be recycled. Maybe you created the most sustainable product but if you wrap it in loads of plastic it defeats the purpose of your product which was to protect the planet.

02. Raw Materials

During the designing process, you need to think about how much materials you will use and whether you can reduce how much you can use. This is also one of the principles of minimalist design that you could take and apply to your work. The whole point is to maximize the impact by using less.

It would be even better if you used recycled paper, wood, or metal. Not only does it save finite resources but it also saves energy and therefore carbon emissions. All the materials you use, whether it’s for a building, a dress, or any product must be non-toxic. Not only is this crucial for the health of our planet, but it’s also important for our health. Before I forget, always do your best to use local materials. The ones imported from other countries just increase carbon dioxide emissions.

Finally, if you can, go digital to eliminate using materials altogether.

03. Manufacturing

You can’t ignore this part of the process. While to you, as a designer, it might seem like your job is finished, you still have multiple things to keep in mind. Here are just a few:

  • Renewable or fossil fuels?
  • How much waste is produced?
  • Does it require intense manufacturing processes?
  • What’s the carbon footprint?

Nothing appears from thin air. If you want to create something, resources will be used. It’s your team’s responsibility to think about this.

04. Transport

Do they need to be transported a long way? This brings in the question of where is the product manufactured. While rare, you could make the product in the country that intends to sell it instead of outsourcing it to other countries like China and India.

When I talk about transportation, it’s not necessarily just for transporting the final product. There’s transportation at every stage including transporting the raw materials and transporting the waste to recycling centers or landfills.

05. Disposal

Can the user recycle it or upcycle it at the end of its lifecycle? These are things that you need to consider to create a fully sustainable design. Or at least as sustainable as a product can be.

The material you use will determine the fate of your product. Choose materials that can be fully recycled.

Design for the circular economy, not the linear one. A way you can do this is by making it possible to disassemble each part of the product so that each one can be reused or recycled. This type of design also gives the consumer the possibility to fix it themselves. Instead of buying a brand new one to replace the broken one, they can simply buy the individual part that doesn’t work anymore. If you use mixed materials and glue everything together, it will inevitably end up in landfills. This is exactly what we are trying to avoid.

Another idea is giving your customers the option to return it so you can repair it and then send it back which again would eliminate landfill waste and keep existing materials in use.

06. Circular Design

We can’t talk about sustainable design without talking about circular design. It’s all good and well buying sustainable products made from eco-friendly materials, but they end up in landfill after a little while, can it really be deemed sustainable?

If you are not familiar with the concept, the circular economy is one where all materials and resources we use, are reused, upcycled, and recycled so nearly nothing ends in landfills. It’s about returning what we took from nature back to nature.

Circular design opposes the current system of ‘buy, use, discard’. It wants to create a world where we use what we already have (which is more than we need) and reuse it to make other things. The aim of this is to reduce landfill waste and be more efficient in the way we live so that the environment doesn’t have to suffer because of us.

It doesn’t matter if you are a fashion designer, a product designer or an interior designer, you can be part of this new movement to better the world.

Types Of Sustainable Design

Above I’ve talked about some of the general principles of sustainable design but they can be applied to the different types of design that exist. And with each type of design, we can go even deeper and talk about the specific things that are required for each discipline in order to make them sustainable. And I’ve created a different article for each of these to help you further understand.

Sustainable Fashion Design

It’s time for fast fashion to leave and slow, sustainable fashion to take the stage. You might wonder what makes the fashion industry one of the top polluters in the world in the world. Well here are a few impacts of fast fashion on the planet:

  • High carbon emissions
  • Tonnes of landfill waste
  • Contributes to plastic pollution
  • Overuse of pesticides
  • Wasting water
  • Depletion of natural resources

Need I go on? You get the picture.

By designing high-quality and timeless pieces that never go out of style, we could transform this industry into the frontrunner of sustainability. The hardest part will be convincing society to change their habits and join this movement.

It will be a challenge but what global issue is not challenging?

Sustainable Digital Design

If you can leave it digital, leave it digital. Don’t print it out if you can send it via email or put it on your website. Showcasing your illustrations, books, and photos online is arguably the most eco-friendly way to do it.

Technology is improving and with new software updates every few months, you are able to design better and more complex illustrations and animations on your computer.

Since technology is here, we may as well take advantage of it to help protect the planet.

While using digital devices has its environmental impact (mainly electricity consumption), it’s far better than cutting down forests and destroying ecosystems. If you have your own website, there are ways to make it more environmentally friendly.

Of course, not all designs can go digital but this is for those whose work is mainly on the computer.

Sustainable Architecture

Or perhaps you are an architect. You may not realize it but you have the power to change so much. The world is becoming more populated and cities are spreading.

The way buildings are designed outside and inside has an impact on the world and the natural environment. Architects need to consider the raw materials, the positioning, vegetation, the layout and so much more to make the building as efficient as possible and hopefully make it carbon zero. Cities must lead by example because it’s cities that are contributing the most to climate change.

The rise of megacities is not only causing extreme harm to the environment but it is reducing the quality of life of its population. It only makes sense to redesign cities for the well-being of ourselves and the planet. In the cities which are integrated into nature, like Singapore and Zurich, people are happier while nature is thriving. That’s because they were able to find the perfect balance between urban and natural spaces.

Spread The Message

It’s not only about what you design. What are you trying to communicate through it?

Now more than ever, creative individuals are coming up with genius ideas to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. They are turning fishing nets into skateboards and carbon dioxide into fuel.

There are no limits to our creativity. Start designing solutions instead of problems. Start small and dream big. You alone might not make a huge difference, but you will be part of the new revolution where creatives are tackling the climate crisis.


Sustainable design should become the norm. It’s clearly possible so why are not more companies are designers implementing these practices? In short, because of money and laziness. Choosing the unsustainable path is the path of least resistance as they don’t have to care about what they are doing and in most cases, it’s cheaper.

Sustainable design might require a bigger upfront cost, but will be more cost-effective in the future.

The world needs designers and artists to care because they are the ones who created the world we are in today and that means they can redesign it once again.

When you join this community of ‘eco-warriors’ you start gaining back some hope. You realize there are many people out there trying to fight for the future and make the world a better place for all life on earth.

They have the power to imagine something that does not exist and create a beautiful future where nothing has to suffer because of our greed. It’s time for creatives to shine and with the help of other professions get us out of the hole we are digging ourselves in.

Feeling Inspired? Read 30 Inspiring Quotes About Sustainable Design

Sofia Hadjiosif
Sofia Hadjiosif

I've always cared about the planet but never knew how I could use my skills to create an impact. But that's when I decided to start Terra Movement. To get other creatives involved in the climate movement and inspire more people to help the planet and its people.

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