The role of Industrial Design in creating Sustainable products

The term ‘sustainable’ was first introduced back in the 17th century. Today, as we continue to face the challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, and resource depletion, it is increasingly evident that sustainability needs to be a core consideration in industrial design. The concept of sustainability has been quite ambiguous and thrown around nonchalantly. Essentially it is based on the three pillars – societal, economical, and environmental. At heart, it asks the question of how we can create products and systems that meet the needs of the present without compromising our ability to survive in the future. Industrial designers play a critical role in the realisation of this goal, being the torch bearer of products – taking mere ideas and manifesting them into market ready products. Sustainability can’t be one phase in the process, it is a holistic approach to the entire industrial design process.

Some key points to consider are – Resource conservation, researching and selecting materials and processes that minimize waste and energy usage to reduce overall carbon footprint. Energy efficiency, designing products that use less energy to produce and less energy used during their life cycle. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to assess the environmental impact of a product through its entire life from material extraction to its disposal and recycling. Product longevity, designing products that can be dismantled, repaired, upgraded or repurposed extends the life of the materials used increasing the value gained over the energy invested to produce. We need to shift the status quo from the linear ‘take-make-waste’ model of production and consumption to a more circular one.

The concept of circularity in designing products extends much beyond just the product itself. One has to think of the whole ecosystem involved which involves other areas such as packaging, graphic design, UI/UX design, engineering etc. Designing for a circular economy prioritises keeping materials in use for as long as possible. Choosing materials that are renewable, recyclable or compostable at the end of their life. Products that can be easily repaired, reused and repurposed are desirable traits towards a more circular economy.

What are some of the best practices to begin with?

It may be hard to define one solution to circularity and sustainability but there are plenty of resources and organisations dedicated to creating frameworks upon which business can adopt and adapt to make the push towards a more sustainable future. The Circular Design Guide by The Ellen McArthur Foundation in collaboration with IDEO is a good attempt at trying to standardize open source this school of thought. The principles are – Understand, understanding the problems, circular solutions and how to adapt them. Define – Articulate the problem, find opportunity for change and circular solutions to address them. Make – Implement what has been learned, exchange ideas, prototype and test. Launch – Put the solution out in the world, receive feedback to generate necessary changes for refinement and the process starts again to understand, define, make and launch. Thus coming full circle. Who we are designing for has shifted from a solitary user to a web of interconnected communities that span the globe. The tools we have at our disposal including AI only means that our capabilities are limited by our imagination and creativity.

Shifting perceptions

Some examples of companies and projects aiming to shift perceptions, educate and bring to mainstream circular practices are – Adidas with its FUTURECRAFT.LOOP, a shoe made to be remade. Its uppers are made with a 100% reclaimed and recycled marine waste additionally, the shoes can be returned to Adidas where they will be reused to make new performance footwear. Patagonia’s Worn Wear is meant to encourage buying less, repairing more and trading in used gear when no longer needed. This extends the life of the product and the materials used. Furthermore, once the consumer no longer needs their gear, they can trade it back in for a discount on other Patagonia products. These traded in products are then refurbished and resold as secondhand. Patagonia has created an ecosystem to enable higher levels of circularity and sustainability within their products. The Method Ocean Plastic Bottle is a dish soap bottle made from recycled ocean plastic and is 100% recyclable. We can see that different companies employ different strategies to ensure a more sustainable and circular future, it won’t be one giant leap but a series of smaller footsteps towards that direction.

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