The Crossroad of Sustainability and Product Design

Date: April 2021
Filed Under: Design

There’s a constant dilemma we face at STEL every single day. As a team made of individuals that are equally passionate about building impactful products and creating a stronger, better future for our planet, how do we reconcile the fact that we contribute to the waste that negates our initiative for sustainability? An unfortunate and frequently ignored truth: product design firms and manufacturing resources are facilitating and perpetuating the negative impacts of product development today, and we’re often there from the very beginning of a product’s lifecycle. With this industry’s current normalized practices, we’re the ones inherently creating current and future waste, from product ideation to being placed on shelves.  

Product development processes and ethical guidelines were established well before carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, and other terms our society has become acutely aware of  in recent years, and haven’t adapted. Sure, technology is becoming more advanced and efficient, but those improvements generally do not yield more sustainable outcomes than what existed before it. Better, faster, stronger rarely equates to cleaner, greener, less environmentally harmful. 

And, as anyone can attest, change is hard—particularly in an industry this fast moving, and this reliant on iterative design. At the first step in the product life cycle, it’s our job to over-produce, creating iterations to test, re-test, scrap, and re-design. Waste is inherent in our process, almost by necessity. At STEL, we’re beginning to change our mindset internally, examining what sustainability really means for us on an individual level, and looking at the big picture to see how we can improve every day. There’s still a long way for the product development industry to go to shift this innately unsustainable discipline, but even the smallest of firms can, and should, start somewhere.

What Does Sustainability Really Mean?

A  current, prominent question that doesn’t seem to have as straightforward of an answer as one, especially in this industry, would hope: What does sustainability really mean?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, sustainability is the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” 

Based on that definition, it comes down to economics—the number of natural resources we have versus how many we’re using to create a product. But, it’s not always that simple. Drawing from an article written  for Fast Company, the authors discuss the confusion that comes with terms like “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” in regards to marketing and product packaging:

“To people who specialize in sustainability, a material’s environmental impact comes down to trade-offs between elements such as carbon footprint, water consumption, and waste production. But these aren’t calculations most people are familiar with…” 

Katherine Eisenber, Jamie Munger & Charlie Paradise, Fast Company

Companies are using this to their advantage, promoting their product’s sustainable advantages, while downplaying the disadvantages the product development process yields. Most commonly, a business can state that their product offering is “more environmentally friendly,” but rarely will  articulate  how exactly it is reducing planetary waste. Even more prominently, these businesses will withhold the true damaging impact associated with the production of these products, which, more often than not, outweighs the benefits of their “environmental consciousness” to begin with.   

This confusion doesn’t stop with the consumer markets either; it also exists heavily in design firms, just under a slightly different guise with significantly less scrutiny. How do we truly define what sustainability means for product development, and draw attention to it in this space? It can be seen as a relative term depending on what we’re talking about. It may not be “sustainable” for us to produce a line of new products, but the waste could be worth it if we’re developing a product that could solve ecological problems in the future. Sustainability is a moving target, and one we need to start aiming at more consistently. It’s nuanced and difficult, but we’re not shying away from the priority it needs to take in the STEL studio, and in product design as a whole.

There’s Always a Cost

Companies who lead with a sustainable mission are huge inspirations for our team, both as individuals and as the collective STEL. Most notably, and most widely recognized for the leadership in their sustainable mission and business goals: Patagonia.  It’s evident through not only their messaging, but their behavior that their ultimate goal is creating a sustainable standard in an industry that is a primary threat to environmental protection. A crucial element of achieving that goal is by being brutally honest; the first line seen on their Footprint page is, “everything we make has an impact on the planet.” Past advertising campaigns have even encouraged customers to not buy new products, but instead reuse and repair their existing products to reduce impact.

This type of perspective is something that we strive to be at the forefront of, and perpetuate its percolation throughout every production industry. Taking after Patagonia’s directness and honesty, we take ownership of the fact that we’re creating waste and making a negative impact with every single new product we design and release on the market. And this extends beyond iterative product designers; it’s true for everyone. Every toilet we flush, every shoe we buy, and every light we turn on has a cost. Given the nature of a wasteful industry that relies so heavily on iteration, we are looking at what creating sustainable change looks like from a shifted perspective.  Allie Vaughan, a STEL sustainability pioneer, explains what our studio’s ultimate goal is:

“In product design and development, sustainability means optimizing products and processes to use as little raw material (of any kind) as possible. Sustainability often speaks to impact, and in my role, that means ensuring that we create products that do not consume more than they need to and aim to use less than expected.”

Allie Vaughan, Head of Product at Luno

In short, no one is expecting us to have zero carbon footprint or zero impact on our environment—that’s impossible. Instead, we should be expected to ask those difficult questions of ourselves, to take in new perspectives of how to be sustainable. And there are things we can do to offset these costs, like contributing to 1% For the Planet with every project we take on, and using recyclable production materials wherever possible.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

For STEL, and for other product design firms, we have a unique opportunity. Unlike other companies, we exist at the beginning of the process, designing the products for the future. In essence, we have the ability to find new perspectives, influencing the way that other industries view consumer goods. This means we need to prioritize the balance of profit and purpose, and start looking at the big picture when we’re defining success for our clients. 

Sure, we all have the ability to design a product that will sell, but if it’s putting even more of a drain on our environment, then what long term impact are we really creating? And is it worth the quick fix processes that are typical in this industry for a short term profit? At STEL, we’re always looking at the bigger picture and taking into consideration the lifespan of the product, even if it takes a little longer to create, or costs a little more to bring to life.

“It’s easy and cheap to make a disposable, unconsidered product; it’s time-consuming, challenging and oftentimes expensive to create a quality, reparable, recyclable product. One of the steps we can take is to create products that first, will last, second, can be repaired easily, and third, can be taken apart and recycled.

This will require unbelievable amounts of attention during the design process as designers consider material types, joints and intersections, access to the internals, failure points, and more. There is no easy fix to this, but I believe if we start training our designers to think bigger and deeper than aesthetics and cost, there will be an elevation in the sustainable nature of making products.

Allie Vaughan

This means we have even more responsibility as product designers; we have to be more than effective and we have to shift perspectives for both clients and customers. At STEL, we pride ourselves in creating products for disassembly, but we are now taking sustainable product design one step further. More than any other industry, we can’t simply put our heads in the sand and say it’s not our responsibility; we must start designing products that solve environmental problems and design them in a way that reflects that purpose.

Speeding Up the Process

It’s not hopeless. The product design industry is uniquely and fundamentally dependent on innovators who are passionate about creating products that won’t only pay the bills, but will change the world. Just looking at the talented professionals on our own team and across the field, it’s easy to see that we have the creativity and flexibility to create real environmental change. This creativity, flexibility, and fire for innovation now needs to be committed to something a little larger than the next consumer electronic. Change is hard, but it’s necessary.

In order to enact this change and live up to our commitment,  we’re using a library of recyclable, plant-based, and non-toxic materials that allows us to create products with minimal environmental impact well beyond their lifetime. To improve the sustainability of production both in our own studio and with our clients, we utilize materials, manufacturers, and design methods that are environmentally conscious. And this is just the beginning of how we’re shifting our processes. 

Our clients, the brands firms and design studios build products for, are making this shift as well; it’s never been more important for product designers and their teams to start creating in a more sustainable way. An article from Sopheon states the companies we create products for are already beginning to adjust their mindset. A McKinsey Global Survey found that:

  • “76 percent of executives say sustainability contributes positively to long-term shareholder value.”
  • “72 percent of executives consider sustainability as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ for managing corporate reputation and brands.”
  • “85 percent of CEOs say that sustainability creates new market opportunities.”
  • “75 percent of companies either broke even or profited from sustainability initiatives.”

“Innovation and Profits with Sustainable Product Development,” Sopheon.

This is certainly encouraging: it will be much easier to convince companies to practice sustainability if it makes good business sense, but that’s not quite enough. We need to start thinking bigger when it comes to product manufacturing—if our commitment to sustainability is always tied to the almighty dollar, then it’s going to surely fluctuate over time. 

For us at STEL, we’ve started thinking bigger than business. With every new product we design, how are we impacting our world? Are we solving a problem for our planet or creating a new one? Is the purpose behind the project more valuable than the profit in front of it? What is truly worth more? By asking these questions, we’ll probably be losing out on some opportunities for short-term profit. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that profitability isn’t always the right choice. Your bottom line may look great now, but at what cost later?