Designing for sustainability: challenges and opportunities
Each year a growing number of companies and consumers take into account the massive impact the production of consumer goods and the range of services have on the environment. Designing for sustainability is becoming increasingly important in today's world, as we face growing concerns over climate change and the depletion of natural resources. In this article, we discuss challenges, opportunities, and a best practice example.
- Facets of designing for sustainability
- Challenges of sustainable design
- Sustainability as an opportunity
- Best practice example of sustainable design: Patagonia
- Using service design to develop sustainable business model
- In a nutshell
Facets of designing for sustainability
Sustainability in design refers to the practice of creating products and systems that have a positive – or at least no negative – impact on the environment and society. All this while at the same time also being economically viable.
In academic literature, sustainability is often linked back to the triple bottom-line framework. This framework states that sustainable development is based on three fundamental factors: ecological sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. Only by simultaneous and equal implementation of all factors can a society's long-term performance be ensured and improved. In this regard, service design can help to reduce harm and shape society for the better.
People commonly associate sustainability with eco-friendly materials, but there are many more aspects to consider when striving to make a company more sustainable.
Fundamentally there are two angles to approach the topic in organizations, they both need to be considered: Sustainable production and sustainable consumption.
On the one hand, the production of a commodity or the offering of a service can be made less harmful to the environment. Desirable goals can be for example to use green energy for production, fair pay for workers, using fewer chemicals in the process, etc. These are just some examples, but taking into account all the factors there are and keeping track of the entire supply chain is a major task.
Durability and longevity are also key aspects of sustainable design. By creating products that are built to last and can be easily repaired or repurposed, we can reduce the need for constant replacement and disposal.
Sustainable product design might use modular components that can be easily swapped out, rather than a single-use, disposable design.
For example when looking at household appliances. The possibility to fix them often contributes to buyers’ willingness to pay a higher price.
On the other hand, and especially looking at the customer’s experience, organizations can also design for sustainable consumption. This can be in the form of producing goods that in the long term save on resources, such as an energy-saving lamp, or designing products that use minimal water. Here, companies can even go a step further and incorporate rainwater harvesting or greywater recycling systems. I.e. when watering a garden with rainwater, there needs to be a water barrel and a pump to make the system usable. These are commodities that need to be produced. Depending on how long they are in use, they might make up for the additional CO2 emissions.
In this regard though, the overall impact must be taken into account. Because, even if a product’s usage is more sustainable than the conventional alternative, it doesn’t always mean that the overall score is positive.
Sometimes, the impact of production outweighs the benefits and savings of consumption.
Challenges of sustainable design
Consumers face various challenges in their goal to live a more sustainable lifestyle. These obstacles are often hard to overcome for consumers, and they subsequently cause challenges that companies face.
Being used to buying a certain product at the supermarket, or going to a specific brand when buying jeans is a habit hard to break.
The goal is to help customers consider alternatives and nudge them in a direction that helps sustainable products become more common and suitable for daily use.
More often than not, sustainable products have a higher price than conventional ones. This is due to higher costs in many areas: fair pay for workers, sustainable materials, less yield due to using fewer pesticides, limited availability of raw materials, the list goes on.
All this can make sustainable materials and technologies less appealing to manufacturers, service providers, and consumers.
Balancing cost and sustainability is one of the biggest challenges.
Two questions pop up in this regard:
- How can we explain the higher price to our customers?
- How can we design towards system change – making conventional products more expensive?
The long-term goal is to make the environmentally friendly purchase also the more budget-friendly one.
Like price and habit, convenience is very much dependent on society’s perception of sustainability. Although continuously growing, the lack of awareness and education about sustainable design can make it difficult for consumers to make informed choices about services.
The more sustainability is incorporated into our daily lives, the easier it will be for everyone to obtain sustainable services and products.
A lack of regulations and standards around sustainable design can lead to inconsistencies in measurement and reporting.
This makes purchasing difficult, and therefore inconvenient for clients – resulting in bad experiences. Here, also policymakers can have an impact by bringing structure and standards to a – up to now – chaotic legislation. Legal design also is an emerging field with a lot of potential to design for sustainability and circularity.
But, how can we as designers or organizations support the journey towards a more sustainable society? How do our businesses survive and thrive in a society aware of the most sustainable way of consumption: consuming less?
Not only products, but also services can be designed sustainably, or to be consumed in a more sustainable way.
Think about the customer’s experience, where are potential pain points that a more sustainable service could improve?
A great example here could be household appliances. A broken washing machine after 3 years is a huge pain point. Household appliances are expensive, but people are willing to pay more if they believe in the durability of a product. The possibility of fixing appliances contributes to this willingness, therefore it’s crucial that components are modular and exchangeable.
Sustainability as an opportunity
Despite all mentioned challenges, there are many opportunities in sustainable design. Advances in technology and materials are making sustainable options more viable and cost-effective. Additionally, consumer demand for sustainable services and products is increasing, which is encouraging service providers and manufacturers to invest in sustainable design, production, and service delivery. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand out from competitors.
Therefore, organizations are looking for alternatives on how to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Some companies are already using their services in this field as a competitive advantage, such as Fairphone.
Society’s consciousness of the need for a more climate-friendly economy is increasing, therefore the potential for making sustainability a USP has emerged. Depending on where you are as an organization, there are various ways how to approach it. For an established company it makes sense to identify sustainable development goals (SDGs) and see which ones go hand in hand with its business model.
Start-ups and scale-ups are still much more flexible and can therefore adapt or even build their business case around a purpose.
This often resonates with a younger audience, which can also be a great foundation for a strong employer brand.
That said, it’s also worth mentioning that organizations’ financial health and sustainability are increasingly converging. Recent research from the University of Cambridge shows that companies that focus on being environmentally friendly consistently generate more profit on the stock market than conventional organizations.
Best practice example of sustainable design: Patagonia
Patagonia offers to repair ripped, or in any other way compromised clothing – which is not unlikely, as it’s an outdoor brand specialized in climbing and mountaineering gear.
There are a couple of mentionable initiatives from Patagonia, which can be sorted into the sustainability categories mentioned at the start of the article: economical, ecological, and social sustainability.
In the topic of ecological and also economical sustainability can be classified that in 1995 Patagonia committed to giving 1% of their revenue to the protection and conservation of the environment. This approach has now become obsolete, even a step further, as in September 2022 the founder of Patagonia placed 100% of the shares in a trust. This will direct future profits of the company to efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change.
On a social level, the on-site nursery for employees with small children is to be mentioned. Patagonia is leading in this regard, as it was one of the first large companies to offer such. Obviously, this is a great benefit for the employees, but it must also be considered that this enables employees to work more hours and go back quickly to full-time employment. Therefore it also promotes economic stability for the company.
If you’d like to learn more about shaping new work practices check out this article.
The worn-wear program has positive effects on social and ecological sustainability. From a social perspective, it offers used clothing of good quality at a cheaper price for lower-income people. Looking at ecological aspects, the worn-wear program keeps clothing in use for longer and therefore contributes to a circular economy.
Creating awareness for topics that are close to the founder’s heart goes further than the – until recently – for-profit business model. Activism and filmmaking are other parts of the strategy to fight climate change and the decline in biodiversity. It promotes ecological sustainability as well as economic sustainability through great marketing and brand positioning.
Patagonia is a B-corp-certified organization. Certified B Corporations are leaders in the global movement for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy. The certificate measures a company’s entire social and environmental impact.
Using service design to develop sustainable business models
Service design helps you to understand your (potential) consumers' requirements and wishes. Designing towards those needs will ensure a healthy and profitable business
To get started with sustainable design, it’s recommended to try a tool called life-cycle assessment.
This is the process of evaluating the environmental impact of a good throughout its entire life, from the extraction of raw materials to the disposal of the final product.
This helps service designers and manufacturers identify areas where they can improve sustainability and make more informed decisions.
Customers don’t just buy products because they are more sustainable – the product must be at least equal to the traditional, unsustainable solution.
Products must feel familiar and fun to use. Here are a couple of ideas and best practices:
Create an offering without producing something new
Ideally you can give consumers a reason to be more environmentally friendly by creating a sustainable alternative to traditional services and products, without compromising the customer’s experience.
Small businesses and startups are usually quick to adapt to shifts in market needs and therefore often more prone to deliver sustainable business models. A great example here is Too good to go, a Danish company that’s core offering is an app. This app enables restaurants and stores to offer groceries or food that is close to expiring at a cheaper price. The primary idea is to reduce food waste, and to make it attractive for grocery stores and restaurants, as they profit from selling what they would have had to discard.
Create a service ecosystem instead of a standalone offer
Circular economy means keeping commodities - or at least the material used to produce – in use, reducing disposable products as far as possible. This might seem contradictory, but:
Profit and reducing overconsumption are not automatically opposed to one another.
Organizations that offer additional services can actively promote less consumption while at the same time continuing economic growth. Looking at high-quality products that are built to last a lifetime – or at least a long time.
A prime example for creating a service ecosystem is Patagonia, especially looking at their offer to repair broken clothing. Find a best practice example above.
Develop a service mindset
By implementing the approach of a service ecosystem instead of a standalone offer, you build long-term relationships with your customers. This means also saving money on reaching new audiences or stocking up on salespeople because people stay loyal customers for a longer period of time. Retaining customers is always cheaper than reaching new ones. This approach provides value and reliability, resulting in recurring revenue, while at the same time keeping up the lifecycle of a product.
A business model with this at heart produces less, has lower costs, keeps customers happy, and fosters an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable society.
In a nutshell
With all the points we have discussed in this article, the significance and influence on society is clear. Thus it is crucial to consider it in current situations, to future-proof your business and obtain a competitive advantage.
Keep in mind your users, customers, and citizens' needs. As manufacturers, see how you can increase your product’s lifecycle without compromising the profitability of your business. As a service provider, find out how to design and shape a service in a more sustainable way – green energy, offer CO2 compensation, or the like.
Designing for sustainability surely comes with challenges and uncertainties, but all in all, it should be seen as an opportunity to change the (business) world for the better.