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Sustainable design: What does it mean and how can businesses use it?

sustainable honeycomb material

With sustainability increasingly high on the business agenda – designing for the benefit of people and planet is an investment in future business success.

What is sustainable design?

Environmentally sustainable design – also known as environmentally conscious or eco design – is the discipline of designing products, services and the built environment in line with the principles of sustainability.

It involves willingly, knowingly, and skilfully designing and engineering whatever you are manufacturing or building to eliminate negative environmental and social impacts.

Sustainable design isn’t about taking an existing product or process and making it more environmentally friendly. More closely related to sustainable innovation, it involves completely re-evaluating and revising something to make it sustainable from the outset – in effect starting from scratch, rather than seeing sustainability as an ‘add-on’ afterthought.

This may seem complicated, but in reality, this process is often the only way to design a truly sustainable product. When followed from the beginning, the principles of sustainable design are straightforward to apply – certainly easier than retro-fitting sustainability ideals onto an environmentally polluting manufacturing process that relies on consumption of finite resources to produce a non-sustainable product that goes to landfill at the end of its useful life.

Sustainable design explained

Waste and pollution do not occur naturally, nor by accident. They are the result of conscious decisions made during the design process.

The way in which we as a society make and use products is destroying the Earth’s natural resources and harming wildlife and ecosystems.

Industries have for centuries produced products destined to eventually end up in landfill, be incinerated, or leak into the natural environment.

With careful attention to good product and process design, businesses can change this.

Key principles of sustainable design

Sustainable design for most businesses splits into three different, yet related workstreams. These are:

  • Sustainability in products
  • Sustainability in marketing
  • Sustainability in packaging

Let’s look at each of those in more detail…

Sustainable design in products

Businesses that produce physical products should first examine these to see what can be done to make them more sustainable.

Areas for consideration may be:

  • Raw materials – Do these come from sustainable sources? Are you buying from environmentally-conscious vendors? Can you source materials closer to home to reduce your carbon footprint?
  • Production process – can products be manufactured more efficiently, and using non-polluting methods?
  • Product lifecycle – What happens to your product at the end of its useful life? Can it be recycled? Can you implement a recycling programme to encourage recycling? Are there options to introduce re-use, re-fill or refurbishment programmes to eliminate the need for waste in the first place?
  • Product quality – Good quality, durable products don’t just please your customers, but don’t need to be replaced as often, reducing waste. They are also less likely to be discarded carelessly.
  • Community benefit – If you do implement a recycling programme, can you open it up to allow people to return similar products to your own?

Sustainable design in marketing

The growth of digital marketing means there is now much less printed marketing than there was in the past, as more and more businesses switch to marketing their products and services online through their website, emails and social media.

Where physical marketing materials are required, businesses should take care to only produce what they need, and to work with companies practising sustainability and offering recycled or eco-friendly options.

Those printing their own marketing materials may choose to purchase recycled paper or paper from sustainable forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Meanwhile, the likes of business cards can be made from recycled products, or in the form of plantable seed paper.

Sustainable design in packaging

The way in which you package your products at point of sale and in transit throughout their supply chain journey can have a huge impact on the overall sustainability of that product and your business as a whole.

There has been and continues to be a growing trend towards recyclable, compostable and biodegradable product packaging, which is great – but it isn’t necessarily the most sustainable option out there for businesses wanting to go ‘all in’ on sustainability.

For starters, packaging should be kept to the absolute minimum, with unnecessary elements eliminated, and quality prioritised over quantity. When it comes to necessary protective packaging and void fill, choosing sustainable materials like responsibly-sourced paper or cardboard packaging that offer high levels of protection in return for little-to-no environmental impact can also help.

Find out more: What is sustainable protective packaging?

Discover the importance of sustainable packaging void fill

We’ve talked before about how the best packaging is really no packaging at all, so can you implement a re-fill or refurbishment scheme to reduce packaging waste, or at the very least allow primary packaging to be returned for reuse and recycling?

Find out more: Read our guide to sustainable packaging

The cost of sustainable design

It goes without saying that all of the above requires significant investment – of thought, time, care, attention and, inevitably, of some money.

However, the financial side of investing in sustainable design may be less than you think.

Initiatives such as setting up a recycling programme for used products or their packaging may cost you next to nothing, and yet will hugely reduce the negative environmental impact of your products, improving the overall sustainability of your business.

Where higher or new costs are unavoidable – such as in a shift away from plastics to more sustainable materials – it is worth remembering that the financial investment you’re making is in the future profitability of your business.

Because conserving our planet for future generations is becoming more and more important to consumers. If businesses don’t fall in line and take the steps necessary to change, they risk alienating their customer base, damaging their reputation and ultimately losing sales as a result.

Making the shift to sustainable design is a process. For help with designing sustainable packaging solutions, why not give our team of experts a call?


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