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28 Apr 2021

Why design is the most important piece of the sustainability picture

Luke Baker

Design is a fundamental element of pretty much every aspect of our world today. It makes life a bit easier for us all. But for a long time, it has forgotten a vital element; our planet and its finite resources.

Designers have got pretty awesome at considering the needs and wants of us all. This mastery stems from a philosophy called human-centred design. First popularised by Stanford’s, it focuses on the needs of the user of a product religiously.

And this has allowed the creation of products that are intuitive, friendlier and easier to interact with. The process typically follows the following process; user research and observation, ideation, and iterative prototyping. Described as “design thinking” this process is responsible for everything from airport checkouts to the empty crisp wrapper on my desk. 

And it’s pretty great as a system, it’s hugely empathetic, grounded in listening, dialogue and questions with users. But there’s something missing from this mix, in the search for absolute convenience we’ve forgotten about the societal and ecological impact these decisions can have.

And this is a pretty big deal, from a process of taking a human-centric view of a product and optimising around this, the design world is starting to adapt to a more interdependent model with society and our planetary boundaries considered. This means designing a product that really lasts and moves away from a linear model of consume and throw away to a circular model of continual regeneration. 

This means design needs to incorporate supply chains, material use, manufacturing, business model and more. So the ability for design to collaborate and communicate not only with the customer but also multiple other internal teams becomes critical.

One company that has adopted such thinking across departments is Fair Phone, which has completely rethought the mobile phone. Their mobile phones are all modular by design, meaning as advances in things like the camera come about, owners can upgrade that part rather than their entire phone. And we’re seeing this also with speakers, Swedish company Transparent makes a truly minimal speaker with every part easily accessible and replaceable for life. This isn’t just a design change but an entire business model change.

This is also seen with perishable goods. Whether it be zero waste stores like the Zero Waste Company in London where you bring the containers for everything you purchase or Good Club who have started delivering zero waste food in returnable pots. We’re also seeing it in household products and personal care from the likes of the Bower Collective.

As part of this design process, we are starting to see new business models also. For example Loop, a Terracycle company that works with brands producing everything from detergents to soft drinks to create a closed-loop packaging system. Customers are charged a small refundable fee for the packaging that is collected after use.

Another business model enabling this new thinking is not actually selling the product at all. The reality is we don’t actually use the products we purchase that much. From the car that sits outside for most of the day to that gardening equipment in the shed. This is where new leasing models are starting to take hold from the likes of Zipcar for cars and Library of Things for a range of great quality products that you only use once a year. 

This changes the economics completely for a company, where longer-lasting products and the materials they’re made from really matter. Could we be moving to a new economic paradigm of usership over ownership? Deloitte predicted back in 2014 that clothing would move to a rental model, however with the fashion industry moving online and providing greater convenience for shoppers to return items for free it seems this trend has not broken out into the mainstream quite yet. But with success growing in segments of the market like children's clothing with Bundlee we may well see rental break out as we approach 2030 and beyond.

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