Entering the design industry almost 10 years ago, the topic of sustainability was not on the agenda. A decade later, much has changed, writes Jo Barnard, founder of industrial design and innovation consultancy Morrama.

In the last three years alone, the world has experienced three out of five of the hottest years on record and scientists have confirmed that we will surpass 1.5 degrees of global warming in the next few decades. The world is burning, sea levels are rising and climate immigration will soon turn from a trickle into a river.

The responsibility of designers

Designers work in an industry driven by production and consumption. Everything they create requires resources. Often just a part of a larger system of project stakeholders, it can feel easy to shrug off responsibility for the end result, to shift the choices made for materials, supply chains or end-of-life decisions onto someone else. But we can no longer shirk responsibility. Whether it be a product, service, event or campaign, designers have a say, they have a voice and with that, they can make a difference.

Declaring a climate emergency

Last year, I joined up with a small group of passionate creatives to create an awareness campaign calling on the design industry to declare a climate emergency. Providing a framework through The 8 Acts and D! Toolkit, Design Declares translates a signature into a commitment from communication, digital, industrial and service designers to learn and understand the impact of their practice and work towards a more sustainable and regenerative future. While this declaration marks just the beginning, it represents a critical first step. Declaring a climate emergency sets in motion a journey that, once started, has no end. This ongoing journey will only serve to improve our skills as designers and empower us as citizens of a global community.

Navigating the complexities of sustainable design

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is knowing where to start. How do we move forwards and make decisions when every design output is part of such a complex system? How do we know we are making the right decisions when nothing regarding sustainability seems to be black and white?

Where we are right now, what we are doing right now, is not working. It is better to act and remain agile than to do nothing at all. When it comes to packaging design, for example, this can translate into the design process in several ways.

  1. Starting at the beginning, question the brief. Consider the real need and purpose behind what is being designed. Brands are always looking to start out in the market, but there are other ways to achieve this than over-designed packaging.
  2. Don’t make assumptions. We often assume refillable and recyclable solutions are always right. But this may not be the case if the packaging is too small for the material to be recaptured or if it means using more material in the first place. Map out the full lifecycle and be critical. Establish the worst-case scenario.
  3. Never forget the user. Design for their understanding and convenience as well as the planet. A great example illustrating this is shown in the design of KANKAN, a refillable soap dispenser for canned body care. By directly attaching the pump to the can, the branding is celebrated while eliminating the frustration of decanting the product. The quick click and thumb screw attachment doesn’t just enable a fast, hassle-free refill experience, but brings a playful touch to a typically mundane product.
  4. Consider a future where there is a better way. Reimagine entire systems – do not just minimise damage done by current ones. Great examples include Notpla and Flexsea who are innovating in seaweed materials, creating packaging that simply disappears after user. Another approach is the circular one. UpCircle is one brand leading the way in the UK with an incentivised returns scheme on its cosmetics packaging.

The barrier of cost

With a deeper knowledge of sustainable design, more willingness to share our learnings with others in the industry and an increased realisation from clients that this is no longer a negotiable factor in the brief, it would seem that every product and service on the market will soon have planet-centred considerations.

Unfortunately, there is one major factor holding us back: cost.

There is a price to making sustainable design decisions. Whether it’s cutting out synthetic ingredients from a cosmetics range, implementing a circular packaging solution or moving manufacturing closer to home, these are going to require an investment that ultimately ends up on the price tag.

A challenger brand looking to reduce packaging materials will likely face huge tooling fees and minimum order quantities that make cost savings near impossible. However, bigger brands have more leverage to absorb these costs and improve efficiencies. They can make supply chains more sustainable by switching to green energy or decreasing materials use. Looking at full systems rather than individual products and using their influence to educate consumers are other ways big brands can drive change. But it will take collaboration across both big and small brands to overcome the cost barriers to sustainable design. With a deeper knowledge of planet-centred solutions and a willingness to work together, we can work to make sustainable solutions affordable and accessible to all.