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2019 is the time to front-up on sustainable design

When I worked at Philips on sustainability two decades ago, we produced a set of EcoDesign guidelines called Point of No Return on environmentally conscious design and development. It highlighted a critical point in the product design process beyond which it is difficult, if not impossible, to reduce the eco-impacts of Philips products – which it defined as the product specification. At the spec, all important product components, materials and processes are locked down, making it technically challenging or costly to change. The idea of a sustainability ‘point of no return’ is hugely pertinent to how we design today, but I believe that critical decision point is now even earlier – the project or design brief.

Front-end sustainability

It is widely recognised that ‘80% of the environmental impacts of products and services are determined at the early design stages [EU Ecodesign Directive 2009]. This explains why we must design for sustainability in the first place, rather than making changes at a product’s end-of-life, manufacturing, transportation or sourcing alone. It implicates designers in today’s sustainability problems; but also suggests design will be part of the solution – helping create a new generation of products, services and business models fit for a sustainable future.

Sustainability in brief

Key to good design is a good brief; the all-encompassing blueprint for a successful project usually prepared by clients for their designers. Shaping the brief with clients, as we all know, leads to better, more creative and commercially successful results and designers work hard to convince clients to co-create the brief before all the important decisions are made. Getting sustainability into design briefs is therefore a critical step to successful sustainable design, too.

The fuzzy front-end of sustainability

timeBut it’s ‘pre-brief’ – during the earliest stages – that the most transformational, sustainable design work may be done.

When I previously held early stage design positions in design agencies, in futures or strategy roles, we discovered that it was always difficult to add sustainability to projects when a client didn’t specify it in the brief so we did most sustainability work at the front-end. Much great design starts before the brief, with research, insights or strategy work, where there is uncertainty or a high degree of freedom to shape what the new product actually is. This fuzzy front-end, often known as design innovation or strategic design, offers amazing potential for the new generations of products and services we surely need for sustainability.

And businesses like Philips have been leading the field in this respect with their Senior Director of Strategic Design for Sustainability in the role for some 20 years now and that team recently expanded its early stage sustainable design work through a Strategic Design for the Circular Economy role as well. More agencies too are recognising how requisite that fuzzy-front end is to sustainability; much of my recent work supporting design agencies on sustainable design has been either research or strategy to inspire creative workshops or idea generation stages of design.

Clients as drivers of sustainable design

timeInevitably clients will play a critical role in getting sustainability effectively into design briefs, and the good news is that businesses are stepping up on sustainable products and design too. 3M recently joined a long list of companies stating that ‘all new products are to include sustainability’ from 2019 – a roll-call of sustainable businesses and big design buyers that includes M&S, Philips, IKEA, Natura, Nike, Kingfisher, Henkel, P&G, and others, making pioneering commitments to sustainable product design.

All good stuff, but it should not exonerate designers of their responsibility to promote sustainability in the brief. Granted, influencing our pay-masters or controlling the brief may be easier said than done, yet clients frequently turn to designers for expertise and skills they don’t possess in-house, like digital know-how or user-orientation – why not on sustainability as well?

One obvious barrier to this is the low-level of sustainability literacy in the design community today. In sustainability work supporting design agencies, I often start by asking ‘do you know your clients’ sustainability goals or targets?’, which is frequently greeted with, ‘what sustainability targets?’ I often find sustainability knowledge to be woefully low, with many designers not even aware of the client sustainability programmes, having no idea about the basics of bioplastics or recycling/recyclable/recycled content, etc. This is worrying if we want to take sustainability to the early stages.

Paddling sustainability upstream

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change delivered the most important point of no return for humanity recently, telling us we have just 12 years to curb runaway climate change. Designers often work on timeframes of 1-3-5-7 years, meaning future projects will be launched into this increasingly climate constrained world – we must start thinking about this now. 

Let’s all make a commitment to front-up on sustainability in 2019, and influence those opening, strategic conversations with clients to get sustainability considered early-on.

About: Chris Sherwin

Chris Sherwin is the Director of Reboot Innovation, a creative consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate for a better world.

Reboot fuses world-changing innovation, marketing and design with cutting-edge sustainable and ethical business.

They are the sustainable innovation partner to brands, designers and innovators who want to practically design a green, fair and prosperous world.


Image credits:

Karsten Würth | Unsplash

Rawpixel | Unsplash


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