Designing your Product to be Sustainable

Sustainability and green energy is the call of our times. Whether you choose to believe it not, climate change is happening and is real. But the question remains, what can you, as an individual designer act on to ensure this message is carried through in the products you design? Katie Lundin, in the write-up below, jots down strategies and tips, that will educate and help you devise a design that speaks of your concern and makes your contribution towards helping our planet.

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Climate change is on everyone’s minds. And it should be. After all, this is the only planet we have. Keeping Earth healthy impacts everyone. But, even if you’re not convinced that climate change is a real problem, there’s still plenty of reason to prioritize a greener, sustainable future. A 2017 peer-reviewed study in the Lancet revealed that pollution continues to be a major global health concern.

According to the study, pollution was responsible for roughly 9 million premature deaths in 2015. This makes pollution the “largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today.” No matter how you look at it, it’s not a great idea to poison the air, water, and soil we all rely on to survive. The great news is that product companies and product designers are in a prime position to make a really positive impact.

SolidWorks, a developer of 3D design software, points out in their Guide to Sustainable Design:

In the midst of the myriad sustainability tools, techniques, global and local activities, and corporate initiatives the product designer plays a key role. This person has an impact in the pivotal stage where decisions are made about what inputs are needed, how they must be processed, what the product’s lifecycle looks like, and what its end of life looks like. Engineering for sustainability early in the design process creates a trajectory that can lock in the benefits from the beginning…

Companies designing products and product designers can protect our planet – and people’s health – through sustainable design choices.

But, what is sustainable 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 and design for the use of green materials.  They can design products that minimize waste and energy consumption. We can all agree that selling products is great, but designing and selling products that support global health instead of undermining it is even better. Challenge yourself to design a better tomorrow with these proven green product design strategies for a more sustainable future.

Design for Improved Product Lifecycle

One of the most effective ways to design greener products is to think beyond the product itself and optimize the product’s entire “lifecycle.” Each and every product goes through a lifecycle of at least 4 stages:

  1. Manufacturing
  2. Transportation
  3. Use
  4. Disposal

Each of these stages offers opportunities to create or minimize waste and consume or save energy. So start your design process by taking a step back to reflect on the lifecycle of your product. Find the lifecycle phases with the biggest negative impacts and focus on improving those in your design process.

Here are some questions to consider when examining a product’s lifecycle:

  • How much energy is needed to…
    • 1. acquire raw materials?
    • 2. assemble the product?
    • 3. transport the product to retail locations 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 repurposed at the end of its life?
  • Will the product biodegrade quickly?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can begin to identify the biggest sustainability pain points. Generally, the more energy expended or waste produced, the more negative the impact on our environment. So, target those areas first. “Green” product design doesn’t just mean avoiding toxic chemicals and choosing to build from recycled materials. The product ’s manufacture, transport, and operation also impact the product’s sustainability. Find design solutions that will decrease the highest instances of energy expenditure and waste during your product’s lifetime. Then, ask yourself what will happen to the product when that life ends.

Consider these options to keep your product out of landfills:

Cradle to Cradle

This approach, popularized by William McDonough and Dr. Micahel Braungart, invites the designer to think of ways that their product can transition into a new life when its current one ends. Think of it like reincarnation for 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” lifecycle isn’t great. Cradle to cradle thinking plans ahead for your product’s next life.

Plan to recycle your product into something entirely new. Or remove and refurbish components for use in a new device. Or even turn it into fuel to produce something else. As the product designer, the choice is yours and while it takes some planning and thinking, many companies and designers have successfully executed cradle to cradle product design strategies. And don’t forget sustainable packaging design. After all, once your product is unboxed, the packaging is typically thrown away.

Design for Disassembly

Design for Disassembly is pretty self-explanatory.  Put simply, it means that you design with the intent of making it easy to get to the components that will later be used elsewhere. It’s a strategy that supports cradle to cradle thinking. If it’s too hard to take your product apart, it may never live that second or third life you had dreamed for it in your cradle to cradle planning. Lifecycle planning is a complex process and we can’t claim to offer all the answers here. But, keep it in mind as you design your next products. And, if you want to learn more, Check out these awesome resources from SolidWorks and AutoDesk.

Choose Green Materials

The most obvious way to design a more sustainable and eco-friendly product is to choose “green” materials. Items made of plastics that won’t decompose for thousands of years, or filled with toxins that will leach into the environment as they decompose are clearly not great choices. Here’s what you should look for when you’re choosing materials for your next product design…

Your first criteria to check when choosing product materials is how it will function in the role you’ve chosen for it?

For instance, unless you like your tea with a smoky flavor (and eventually all over your stovetop), pine isn’t a great material for a tea kettle. But, if the answer to that question is yes, consider this sustainability checklist.

Look for materials that are:

  • Non-toxic. I don’t like being poisoned – do you like being poisoned? Enough said.
  • Abundant. Materials that exist in large quantities are a better, more sustainable choice. Avoid rare materials or you run the risk of completely depleting a resource from our planet. And, as the material becomes more scarce, the price tends to skyrocket. This makes abundant materials a financially wise choice, as well.
  • Easily Reproduced. Materials that can be easily reproduced are, by definition, sustainable. Think of wood (which can be grown, harvested and regrown) as opposed to coal (a finite resource) which will inevitably run out.
  • Rapidly Renewable. Rapidly renewable materials are not only reproducible but quick to reproduce. These materials (like bamboo, cotton, natural rubber, and cork) are awesome choices for greener designs. The speedy rate at which they reproduce makes them a reliable, sustainable resource.
  • Low Waste. Some materials create far more waste to produce than others. For instance, it takes 85 lbs of material to create 1 lb of virgin aluminum, but only 7 lbs of material to create 1 lb of virgin steel. Choose materials that produce less waste.
  • Recycled, Recyclable or Biodegradable. Choose materials that can go on to live another life – either as another product or by reintegrating with the earth. You will create less waste and save energy (that would otherwise be expended creating new virgin materials) by using recycled materials.

Design your next product to be built from sustainable materials. Our children’s children will thank you.

Make Choices That Reduce Consumption

The heart of sustainability is to avoid using more resources than we can replenish in a useful span of time. One of the easiest ways for a product designer to make more sustainable choices is by reducing the amount of materials or energy that will go into a product in the first place.

Here are a few strategies to minimize your next product’s resource consumption:

Prioritize Energy Efficiency 

Plan to make your product as energy efficient as possible. You can do this through efficient engineering, utilizing sustainable energy sources and through the use of materials with low embodied energy. Materials that require less energy to produce, transport, operate, and dispose of are said to have low embodied energy. You can design products with a smaller carbon footprint by using materials with low embodied energy. You can get a copy of Circular Ecology’s Embodied Energy Database for free here.


 Lightweighting is a strategy that focuses on making your product with less material – hence, making it lighter in weight. 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, to the amount of energy needed to transport and dispose of the product. There are a number of techniques that you can employ when making products lighter in weight. Utilize geometry to make products as strong as possible with as little material as possible. Use hollow components wherever practical. You can learn more reinforcing strategies to support your lightweighting efforts here.

Lengthen Product Lifespan

Designing a product to last is a very effective green technique. Think about it. Purchasing one sweater over ten years consumes fewer resources than purchasing ten sweaters over ten years. And, it’s not just the resources. It’s the embodied energy of one sweater lifecycle vs. the embodied energy of ten sweater lifecycles. In fact, even some “green” products can be less green than a single product that lasts a long time.  For instance, a single ceramic plate used over and over is a more environmentally responsible choice than a stack of disposable, biodegradable paper plates.

Lisa Smith explains in her article “The Disposable Society: An Expensive Place To Live,”

We live in an age where everything gets thrown away. From disposable cameras to disposable diapers, few products marketed to consumers are made to last. But what many consumers don’t realize is that this throw-away world was largely made by design. Manufacturers call it “planned obsolescence”.

Planned obsolescence may seem like a sound profit strategy. It’s great for revenue when people buy stuff and then have to buy more stuff shortly after.  But, that shouldn’t come at the cost of actual people or our planet. It’s time to flip the script. It’s time to design products that last.

Sustainable Product Design Can Make a Difference:

Companies and product designers have a lot of power to make choices that positively impact our environment – and by extension – us. It may be a whole new way of approaching a design challenge for you. But, it’s worth it. Here’s your green design checklist. Take it with you as you start your next design. Who knows how positive your next design’s environmental impact could be?!

  • Optimize product lifecycle.
  • Design for disassembly and plan for your product’s next life.
  • Choose materials that are abundant and sustainable.
  • Make recycling part of your design strategy
  • Avoid materials that increase pollution.
  • Prioritize energy efficiency with:
    • efficient design,
    • sustainable power sources and
    • materials with low embodied energy.
  • Use fewer resources by lightweighting your designs as appropriate.
  • Design products to last.

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge like fighting global pollution we often ask ourselves, “I’m just one person, what can I do?” But companies and product designers who make responsible informed choices about the design of their products can make the world a better place for all of us.

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The original write up by Katie Lundin published on Crowdspring can be found here.