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Sustainable Product Design: A Quick Guide

We are surrounded by products in our every life. Some make our lives easier and some are just useless. Sadly, when someone wants to launch a new product, they put profits over the planet. But that needs to change. From now on, we must start making product design more sustainable because we are putting too much stress on the planet and its resources.

Just like we need to focus on making fashion more sustainable, it’s also necessary to make every-day products more eco-friendly because most of them are wasting too much energy and natural resources.

The Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment

To make a truly sustainable product, we must consider its whole lifecycle, not just the manufacturing process which is what most people do. The lifecycle starts when the raw materials are extracted and ends when the product is disposed of.

Companies need to carry out a life cycle assessment to assess the impact it will have at each stage mentioned below. At each stage, there are different criteria that need to be met to ensure the product will cause minimal harm.

product lifecycle infographic

Pre Consumer

Design

The design process is the first part of creating a sustainable product. Right from the start, designers need to have sustainability in mind. This is perhaps the most important stage because this will determine the impact the product will have on the planet in the following stages.

Designers need to design products that are long-lasting and functional for a very long time. Some unethical brands purposely make products break after a certain amount of time ( eg Apple) so you can go buy the new release in a year or two. This is not only unethical, but it’s also very unsustainable.

Moreover, designers should focus on creating products using the least amount of materials possible to reduce the demand for natural resources. If everyone does this, entire habitats and ecosystems could be saved.

Circularity

Circular design will become incredibly important in the near future. If you are not familiar with the concept, circular design is essentially a way to create products (or systems) where materials are in a closed-loop. This ensures that materials can be reused over and over instead of needing to extract more materials.

It focuses on reducing waste and creating efficiency in our society. There are many ways to do this but it won’t be a one-person job. All companies and individuals will need to join this if we wish to create a genuine circular economy.

Some way to create products for the circular economy are:

  • Use as few materials as possible
  • Reuse or recycle products at the end of their lifecycle
  • Disassemble products at the end to use their individual parts to remanufacture new products
  • For each product only use one or two types of materials to make disassembly easier
  • Make them easy to repair

But this is just the beginning. There are countless ways in which society can reduce its waste and start creating a circular economy.

Extracting Raw Materials

Ideally, all or most materials should be recycled as they have the least environmental impact. These also reduce carbon emissions. If using recycled materials is not an option, the materials should at least come from sustainable sources. Checking for third-party certification is a good way to ensure they are not greenwashing.

Finally, materials should preferably come from local areas. Shipping materials across continents will increase the carbon footprint of the product. To reduce air miles, always try to find locally sourced material. It’s the best option.

When choosing what materials to use, here are some other points to consider. These will help you ensure that the fabrics or materials are as sustainable as they can be:

  • Is it non-toxic to people and the environment? This one is non-negotiable. Products should not be toxic to anything or anyone.
  • Is it renewable? (and how fast can it regenerate). Some materials like bamboo grow at a faster rate which is why it’s considered a very eco-friendly material.
  • Is it an abundant material on earth? If it’s finite, know how much of it is left on the planet.
  • Are they biodegradable or compostable? This important as it will determine how it will be disposed of in the end.

Manufacturing

In most cases, the manufacturing process creates the most pollution, produces the most emissions, and in general causes the most harm. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With new technology, manufacturing can become a cleaner and healthier process. Because the pollution it creates is not only dangerous to wildlife. It poses danger to human health too, especially to those living in developing countries.

Currently, most companies are mass-producing their products. What if we challenged this norm? What if all companies started utilizing on-demand manufacturing? It’s by far the best way to go about creating new products.

On-demand manufacturing is a way to create only the quantity of items needed. They only manufacture the product when the customer makes the order. The reason this is so good is that it eliminates tonnes of waste. Brands, especially fashion brands, overproduce. Tonnes of it don’t even get the chance to be bought and goes straight to landfill.

Some other things to consider are:

  • Energy source – Using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels
  • Energy efficiency – Making sure all equipment and the general process is as efficient as possible will reduce energy demand
  • Pollution – Does it pollute waterways, the air, or the soil?

Packaging

The packaging it’s wrapped in will also determine if the product is sustainable.

Unfortunately, the majority of packaging is now plastic. However, it’s good to see how companies are moving away from this and to more eco-friendly options.

Packaging is single-use as after the customer unwraps the product, they throw the packaging in the bin. Since it is single-use it makes sense to make them so they have a short lifespan. The best way to do this is by making it compostable so that it can break down right in your garden or compost bin in a few weeks.

Also, reducing the amount of packaging is a must. How many times have you ordered a small item only for it to arrive in a massive box? Amazon is definitely a culprit of this. There are ways to create smart and efficient packaging designs that will make the product stand out even more. Efficiency is a keyword when it comes to sustainable design and can be applied at every stage, even to this one.

Finally, think of ways to package the product that takes up the least amount of space. Doing this will reduce the environmental impact during transportation since more of it will fit a smaller space.

Transport

After the product is fully made and wrapped, it’s time to ship it to the stores or straight to the consumer. Since transportation releases lots of greenhouse gases, it’s always best to manufacture them either in the country that they are sold or a nearby country.

The amount of carbon dioxide released will also depend on which transportation is used. Will they be transported by plane, ship, or train?

Product use

Now let’s talk about what happens when the product reaches the hands of the customer.

The first thing to ask is if it causes harm. A designer must consider if the product will harm people or the environment. For instance, will it release toxins?

Another question to ask is if it needs to be powered. Electronic devices and cars for example will need either electricity or fuel to keep them going which will increase their carbon footprint. A designer has to think about this from the start because if this is the case, it’s essential to make them as efficient as possible to reduce resource depletion.

Additionally, what is the estimated lifespan? Will it be long-lasting or will it break after a few uses. Creating good-quality products that will last for years will reduce its environmental impact. Companies need to snap out of the habit of creating low-quality items so customers can come back to buy more. Profit should never come before the planet.

Phasing out single-use items and replacing them with reusable ones should be another important goal to reach. If there’s no other option but to create single-use items (such as medical supplies), we must start making them more eco-friendly by making them biodegradable or compostable.

Post Consumer

When the user doesn’t need the product anymore or if it’s broken, the product needs to be disposed of. But that’s not the end of its life cycle.

Transport

After you throw away something, it needs to be transported to landfill or a recycling center.

Some companies have schemes in place where you can send what you don’t want back to them. Or if you have something broken, you can send it back so they can fix it for you instead of buying a new one. The most famous example is Patagonia. This is the sort of circular thinking our society needs more of.

Disposal

We are at the final stage of the life cycle sustainability assessment. The disposal. Right now, most of it ends up in landfills or the ocean. However, this needs to stop. We are creating too much waste and nature is reaching its limits. Waste is killing wildlife and changing natural landscapes forever.

So how can we make the disposal of products more eco-friendly? Here are some things to think about:

  • Does it release microplastics?
  • Can the parts be used again to make a new product?
  • Can it be recycled?
  • Could it be composted?

(All of these are the job of the designer at the very first stage. As I said in the beginning, the designer has the most important job and it’s their responsibility to create a sustainable product aimed for the circular economy)


In our throwaway society, it is cheaper to replace what we own rather than fixing it. This mindset needs to change and the aim should always be to increase the lifespan of products. Keeping them out of the bin and out of landfills. Some ways to do this is to:

  • Reuse it
  • Repair it
  • Donate it
  • Give it to a friend or family

Sustainable Design is Ethical Design

Sustainable design is not just about the planet. The people who are involved in the making of it also need to be taken into account. This means all workers need to be paid a fair wage, work reasonable hours, and work in safe conditions.

No one should be exploited.

Ethical design is equally important as sustainable design. Creating products shouldn’t put the health of the workers at risk. It’s just not fair.

Conclusion

As a society, we love stuff and I don’t think we’ll ever stop loving them because they make our lives easier. But that shouldn’t let us dismiss the planet because it provides so much for us. Let’s design and manufacture every product in a more sustainable manner so that nature can thrive once again.

Nevertheless, it’s not just designers and companies that need to know about sustainable product design and the lifecycle of a product. Consumers also need to be aware of it so that they can make more informed decisions and better shopping choices.

All images from Unsplash

About 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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