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Promote sustainable design thinking from the start

Opinion

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12 December 2019

Author: Jo Barnard

Image: Angle Razor by Morrama, London

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The founder of industrial design agency Morrama emphasises the need for greater research and scrutiny to improve future working practices

Sustainability. Nowadays it is at the very centre of debate around ethical product design. Whether it’s a rising demand from customers for more sustainable options or pressure on companies to take their impact on the world seriously, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s happening.

There are a number of considerations that brands – as well as the agencies they employ to carry out their sustainable mission – must take when it comes to becoming more ethically focused. First and most importantly for brands: do not claim to be something you are not. If you are not working as sustainably as possible within your means, don’t mislead your customers by saying so, because they will see (or research) straight through it.

In fact, research is one of the easiest things to do when it comes to physical product design, because it’s just that: physical and made from ‘stuff’. So educate your teams to choose more sustainable materials and processes at the very beginning, so you have intrinsically more sustainable products at the end.

Unfortunately though, it’s not always that black and white. When it comes to materials, there are very few circumstances when there is a clear right and wrong answer. They all need to be measured against each other for that specific context of use. Getting your facts right with a little desk research will go a long way.

Take bioplastic as an example. PLA, corn starch plastic, plant-based plastic – call it what you will, but essentially it’s still plastic. It works like plastic, behaves like plastic and takes hundreds of years to break down like plastic. While the plant-based raw material is renewable and can be manufactured anywhere where there is enough land and a water source, the diversion of edible corn into the plastic industry is questionable in a world with a major food-shortages.

Morrama phone
'The key question to ask is: how can our brand improve the user experience and make good, sustainable decisions at the same time?'

Listen to your customers, too. It will help you to make key decisions as to where to put your resources at the beginning of the design process. Research shows that while a majority of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products, they aren’t willing to compromise on experience. Carrying out consumer research early will ensure your company is working efficiently towards an offering that people actually want, resulting in a less wasteful development process and improved customer experience and satisfaction. The key question to ask is: how can our brand improve the user experience and make good, sustainable decisions at the same time?

Consider how furniture manufacturer Vitsoe has built on the work of Dieter Rams – arguably the godfather of good design principles. It has been designing to these principles for nearly half a century, with its reusable packaging travelling across Europe. Its bags are returned after delivery to be used again and again for 15 years or more, unburdening the recipient of the necessity to dispose of stacks of cardboard in the process. That’s a win-win, and just one example of a company doing things right and improving the customer experience at the same time.

In the Western world, customers are so far removed from the production process that it's all too easy to keep the true cost of production quiet; poor working conditions, under-paid workers and polluting by-products. And when it comes to complex products, being able to track these factors is increasingly expensive and often impractical. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however. If all businesses start questioning the ethics of their suppliers rather than turning a blind eye, our collective voices will be heard. Sustainability might seem like a luxury sometimes, but it’s a necessity if we are to continue producing products and consuming goods long into the future.

Jo Barnard is founder and creative director of industrial design studio Morrama, working with businesses on a fast-paced design process incorporating both user experience and manufacturing feasibility.

To read more about the materials that will shape our future, download our Material Far Futures report.

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