To Create a Sustainable Product Design

Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Design, Designers, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

To Create a Sustainable Product Design

Gupta, Swati

Sustainability is a dynamic concept born out of the environmental debate of the last quarter of a century. The Rio Summit emphasized economic growth and poverty alleviation for sustainable development. Developing a sustainable product design is an important step towards achieving sustainability. It requires that products, goods and services are designed to comply with the principles of sustainability.

Product design: Life cycle assessment
Sustainability is the ability “to sustain or to maintain”. The intention of sustainable design is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful and sensitive design”. A product when conceived should be considered for its impact in its entire lifecycle.

This means that designers need to consider how the product interacts with the environment in material production, manufacture, transportation and packaging, use and disposal. McDonough and Braungart states that the designers should consider the life of the product’s materials beyond the first product lifecycle in order to ensure that they can serve a useful purpose indefinitely, rather than being down cycled and eventually disposed off. When re-designing an existing product, designers might research these interactions based on the existing products, or if designing new products they might consider using methods such as Lifecycle Brainstorming or product storytelling method, whereby the design team develop the life story of a unit of the product to help identify the possible impacts and events that may occur. This can be useful because the reality of many products lives does not follow the exact route planned during the design phase, and so alternative eventualities should be considered.

The next step is to establish exactly what the impacts of the product are, how big they are and how are they are caused by. By doing so, the designers can identify where they require the need for improvement and will be able to focus their efforts effectively. Full life cycle assessment can be extremely time consuming and complicated, and so is often not practical in the high speed product design and development process. However, a number of other systems exist that allow products and designs to be assessed and compared quickly and easily.

Sustainability: dimensions and key issues
“There’s enough in the world to meet the needs of everyone but there’s not enough to meet the greed of everyone”. – Mahatma Gandhi

Sustainability is a wide-ranging term. In order to design products effectively, it should be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. The product shouldn’t falter in any of the mentioned areas as any such disadvantage can lead to various issues. The dimensions and key issues of sustainability are –

Environmental Sustainability –
Environmental Sustainability is essential to stop the continual degradation of the natural environment. To achieve sustainability it is essential to accept that humans are dependent on the natural environment for their own survival and wellbeing. Without a healthy natural environment, it is impossible to have a healthy society or economy.

Major environmental issue are-

  1. Contamination of air with harmful gases and particles causes global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, plus eye and respiratory problems in wildlife and humans.
  2. The rising global temperature of the earths atmosphere due to emission of “greenhouse gases” results in reduced biodiversity due to changing climate, rising sea levels and flooding, and extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.
  3. Solid Waste generated due to inefficient production processes and poor design for end of life treatment causes problems of landfill, land use, methane emissions from landfill, leaching of pollutants from landfill into soil and groundwater etc.
  4. Water Pollution caused due to contamination of natural water systems such as rivers. lakes, oceans and groundwater with hazardous substances due to waste disposal, acidification and agriculture causing ill health of plants, animals and humans.


Economic Sustainability –
Economic Sustainability is essential for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of businesses will not pursue sustainability unless they see it as offering them financial benefits. Secondly, financial wealth is an important element of quality of life. However, contrary to traditional belief, the goal of financial profit does not have to be in conflict with the goals of social and environmental profit. Carefully designing of products within their business, social and environmental systems can result in solutions that have long term financial viability and consistently generate financial profit and wealth. All of this can be achieved without damage to society or the environment and can potentially even generate profit in these areas.

An economically sustainable system should have the following characteristics:

  • Generates long term revenue by constantly meeting customer needs.
  • Does not rely on finite resources.
  • Maximises profitability by minimising consumption of resources.
  • Does not threaten the financial wellbeing of its customers.
  • Does not have any significant liabilities.

Major economic issues are-

  1. Liabilities or Legal responsibility for the costs and damages caused by operations arising from damage to natural environment and human health.
  2. Consumption of finite resources primarily fossil fuel can continue as long as the resources are available at a reasonable price, such operations has no long term future.
  3. Customer Loyalty can be generated when customers sense that they are receiving good service at an affordable price, that the organisation cares about their needs and that the organisation has ethical aspirations beyond its own financial wealth.
  4. Waste – Non-productive consumption of material and human resources. It is caused by poor organisation and inefficient systems and processes.
  5. Inconsistent Revenues caused by business relying on unstable resources and markets, by failing to meet customer needs and from selling one-off products. It results in the future of the business being unpredictable and insecure.
  6. Rising Costs of human and material resources caused by limited availability of resources and tightening regulations, and shifts in international markets reduces profitability and financial viability of products/services.
  7. Competition to survive against other organisations, fighting for the same customers, failing to operate as effectively as competing organisations and failing to maintain loyalty of existing customers leads in decline in market share and reduced profit margins.

Social Sustainability –
Social Sustainability is the core element of Sustainability. Financial and Environmental factors are important, but they are both means to the end, rather than ends in themselves. Therefore, by working towards financial and environmental sustainability, we are already working towards social sustainability. Social sustainability involves protecting the mental and physical health of all stakeholders, encouraging community, treating all stakeholders fairly, and providing essential services. These elements are essential because a healthy society cannot be developed and maintained if the population are in poor health.

Major social issues are-

  1. Poverty – Lacking sufficient wealth to meet basic human needs of education, health, transportation and other facilities results in ill health, depression and potentially even death. Often such conditions also stimulate crime and civil unrest.
  2. Exploitation of people occurs when social, financial or physical power is used to force weak members of society to work for the benefit of the powerful. Such exploitation increases the gap between rich and poor and encourages civil unrest.
  3. Ill Health – Poor condition of the mind or body caused by poor diet, lack of exercise, pollution/poisoning, physical strain, injury, stress, lack of mental stimulation, lack of purpose etc. It leads to reduced productivity, depression and often death.
  4. Lack of Essential Services due to insufficient systems to provide for the needs of the population can result from existing poverty, bad government, lack of community responsibility, crime, natural disasters/circumstances etc.
  5. Crime and civil unrest usually results when there is poverty, lack of education, social tensions, exploitation, lack of opportunity etc. Most acts of crime degrade quality of life for others in society or place an increased burden on public services.

A sustainable designed product should be able to promote economic, environment and social sustainability.

An earthen pot has been chosen as the logo for the Ecomark scheme in India. The familiar earthen pot uses a renewable resource like earth, does not produce hazardous waste and consumes little energy in making. Its solid and graceful form represents both strength and fragility, which also characterises the eco-system. It is to be placed on all products which don’t harm the environment form it birth to grave and its rebirth.

Marketing: Green labels-
If designers succeed in reducing the environmental damage caused by their products, then they must ensure that their achievements are effectively communicated to customers. Green labels acts as an identification mark for the consumers as they are able to identify the green products from the rest. It instils confidence in the maker and consumers alike. In India, the practice of green labelling has started getting encouragement but in Europe it is an established norm. The green label available are-
The official award for non-food products sold within the EU, it indicates that efforts have been made to minimise the products impact on the environment. Products must meet all criteria set out by EU.
It is a legal requirement within the EU that many electrical products indicate their efficiency at point of sale in a form similar to that shown here. The label rates products efficiency from A-G (A being the most efficient) and also displays some more detailed performance data. The label applies to:

Refrigerators, Freezers and Fridge-Freezers, Washing Machines, Electric Tumble Dryers, Lamps, Electric Ovens, Air Conditioners etc. In India we have a similar rating system from Bureau of Energy Efficiency.

It indicates that a product is one of the most efficient of its kind on the market. It can be applied not only to energy consuming products, but also to energy saving products such as building insulation and draught proofing products.
The Energy Star symbol indicates that the stand-by energy consumption of the product is below an agreed level. Voluntary label applicable in Europe and USA.
Mobius Loop, Widely used symbol to indicate that a product can be recycled or that it is produced from recycled materials. Where a product is recyclable, the loop is accompanied by an indication of the material type. For polymers this is usually done with the use of a polymer identification code. For products made of recycled material, the loop is usually accompanied by a percentage. Materials and percentages can be displayed either inside or adjacent to the loop.
Therefore, it can be summarised that to design a sustainable design it is imperative that the product is assessed for its environmental, social, and economics impacts. A well designed product should also be assessed for its impact once the life is over. Such a scenario includes – reusing and recycling. Once such a product is manufactured it is important that it is marketed in a similar spirit using green labels. Such green products will not only reduce carbon footprint but will also provide new and alternate employment opportunities to people, who were earlier engaged non -sustainable development.


Braungart, McDonough, William; “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”; North Point Press; 1st edition; 2002.



http//Design Issues Sustainable Design Guide – ESP Design.mht


http// Sustainable design – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.mht

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