It was 10 years ago when I completed a review of the current state of the art tools, methods and principles for sustainable design. This developed into an online resource called ESP Design that for several years was the world’s most popular and comprehensive online source of information about sustainable design.
After nearly a decade I closed the site down as it had not been updated for a long time and I had been unable to find somebody with the time and motivation to take on the huge job of bringing it up to date. The domain espdesign.org is now used by an unrelated Chinese website, but you can find the archive here.
Now I have had time to observe the reality of the situation in greater detail. My overall conclusion has been that genuine sustainable product design (and I’m talking environmental sustainability here) is simply not possible when we are designing for a system that puts financial profit before all other factors, and for a culture that is addicted to ever increasing levels of consumption. It is fundamentally not sustainable.
The consequence has been that my personal interest has shifted away from products themselves and towards digital design and design that encourages positive behavioural change.
Despite this, I realise that physical products are inescapable and even if true sustainability is not possible within the current system, there are some very simple principles that all designers should be aiming to follow that would make a massive difference. This is my new sustainable design manifesto.
Before prescribing any particular guidelines or solutions, it is essential that the goals are clear and simple.
The exact way in which this is achieved will vary from one situation to another, but some general guidelines are as follows:
These guidelines are intentionally simple, but just like when I published my original conclusions 10 years ago, it is extremely hard to find examples of any products that I would consider genuinely sustainable. Despite a huge amount of marketing for “green” and “eco” products, very few can back up their claims.
This brings us back to the fact that the cultural, financial and industrial system for which we are designing is highly flawed. Those who cause environmental problems are not fully (if at all) held responsible for those problems. This is why I believe we need tighter regulation on the appropriate use of materials, charges on manufacturers for the disposal costs of their own products and the provision of efficient and effective disposal facilities for ALL commonly used materials.
Both manufacturers and consumers need to be nudged to act responsibly by changing the system to reward efficient use of materials and energy throughout a products life cycle.
Although examples of products that meet the above guidelines are few and far between, I have found a few that come close, and thought it would be helpful to provide some examples of how the guidelines would change the design of products. Here are a few examples:
A huge proportion of our textiles are synthetic and effectively non-recyclable. What’s more, they almost always blend several materials together, removing any hope of complete recycling.
New textile products would be produced from single synthetic materials where recycling facilities exist, or from natural materials (including natural synthetics). This includes details such as labels, buttons and inks.
We waste a huge amount of materials through packaging. Packaging that is unnecessary and has been given virtually no thought to its disposal.
New products would have a lot less packaging. Any lightweight packaging such as films, bags, nets, stickers and strings would likely be all natural and biodegradable. Heavy duty packaging would be produced from single materials that can be easily re-used/recycled, or from entirely natural materials.
Many consumable products such as inks, paints and adhesives are impossible to recover or prevent from entering the natural environment and yet little if any thought is usually given to this.
All consumables would be produced from non-toxic, biodegradable and renewable chemicals.
A large amount of modern furniture uses non-recyclable man made materials such as synthetic fabrics and foam, often bonded or sewn together with other materials, making it impossible for most of it to be disposed of properly. Frames and doors are often made from chip board and laminates that bond wood together with synthetic resins and plastic laminates.
Furniture of the future will probably much like furniture of the past. Built to last from sustainable wood or using metal frames, joined together with wood or metal joints that are easy to dismantle where required. Where new technologies are used, we’ll see efficient materials such as chip boards and ply using natural, non-toxic adhesives, as well as natural laminate materials and paints.
This is without doubt the most difficult area of sustainable design. Electronic products use a huge number of different materials (often rare and/or toxic), woven together in configurations that make them almost impossible to efficiently separate.
We’ll hopefully see less toxic materials being used in electronics (the WEEE regulations certainly helped push that forward), but in the near future the biggest opportunities for improvement may well be in designing the products to be repairable/upgradable and ensuring that the casings are easy to separate from the electronic elements and to dispose of appropriately.
To some extent transport is a combination of textiles, consumables and electronics. The big difference that we will see in the future is the majority of vehicles becoming electrically driven, with sustainably produced biofuels being used only in a small number of specialist applications.
If you have ideas to enhance this sustainable design manifesto or would like to share experiences and examples of real products, please leave a comment below.