A few thoughts on sustainable product design.

A few weeks ago an episode of the blue planet aired on TV, featuring the damaging effects of ocean plastic and the dicipline of sustainable product design has been put at the forefront of our industry. In order to achieve change, quite often brands need their customers to vote with their wallet and this change in attitude, as consumers are educated on pollution, is bringing about real change. Brands now need to be seen to be making a shift towards true sustainability to stay in favour and marketing executives are now taking every chance to highlight their products’ green credentials.

The 5p plastic bag levy that was brought into the UK for me was a late, but important step towards legislative action and whilst this was unfortunate for the companies who make the bags and their employees, these actions are necessary to force positive change, when we are unwilling to make those changes ourselves. I would have liked to have seen a complete ban on them all together, but progress is still progress. In recent weeks the U.K. government has outlined a 25 year plan for the environment, with the intention of eliminating unnecessary plastic waste all together. Again this is slow in my opinion and it’s encouraging to see that the CEO of Iceland has stated he is aiming to achieve this in just 5 years. In order to retain consumer loyalty, I expect we will see other big brands following suit.

As the sustainable mindset gains traction, some big questions are posed to product designers and previous ways of thinking have to be challenged. At the moment, sustainable design efforts can probably be categorised into 3 different categories; unsustainable, less bad and sustainable, with the majority of products falling into the first two categories. The ‘less bad’ category is often the first and necessary step that brands take in order to educate their customers and more importantly themselves. Reducing the amount of plastic used by weight and sourcing materials from recycled sources are often the two ‘less bad’ options that are initially employed by brands and product design companies, although both can fall far short of the mark, despite everyone’s best intentions.

For a look into what the future might hold for plastics, perhaps we should take a look at our past, before plastic was commonly used. Products were generally designed and built to last, with good quality materials that could be repaired locally. Products were designed to be mass produced and distributed, although the global supply chain that we are now accustomed to was not so developed. Made in the UK was the norm, not a rareity. Plastics have unfortunately become the go to, cost effective enabler for long distance logistics of both perishable and non perishable goods. If we were to take this material away, we would need to innovate in order to maintain the low costs that consumers demand. This is going to happen and who will be the winners and the losers is yet to be determined.

North Product Design is making a conscious effort to transition towards a sustainable future and we accept that a lot of our work to date has fallen into the ‘less bad’ grey area of sustainable design. In an effort to move this on, we are engaging with our clients on the subject and introducing sustainable principles into their business models so that their products have a positive impact on the environment. It’s important that as designers we make a stand for what we believe in as we have the ability to shape the world around us.

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