Sustainability has rightly grown from a fringe idea about being ‘green’ to being a positive movement affecting all areas of our lives.
Within its wider definition of ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the idea of sustainability has expanded to also consider outcomes that are environmentally, socially and financially responsible for the world as a whole.
Given the enormity of this and the range of values and competing positions which could be considered within this definition, sustainable design is not an easy objective to fully resolve.
However, the scale of the challenge shouldn’t be an excuse as to not try. Whilst total sustainability may be a near-impossible dream, it is possible and readily achievable to do things better than we have in the past and to improve our world’s sustainability through good design.
Design: Problem or Solution
Most designers, at their core, want to improve the world. But design and new product development are activities within our wider and imperfect world, so at times, and especially in the past, designers have been part of the problem and not the solution.
New products can bring true benefits to people; people individually, people within companies or collectively within a society. For example, advances in diagnostic and therapeutic devices have improved health outcomes and the quality of life for most people in developed countries. There are countless other everyday examples. Although less noble, products like cordless kettles, multi-geared bicycles or quick-drying footwear are products that improve our daily lives through good design.
As well benefiting consumers, the very development and manufacture of products can also bring overall wealth and meaning to societies as witnessed in places such as Japan, Singapore and Eastern Europe- just to name a few.
But design, along with corporate, marketing and economic agendas, continues to be used as an agent for meaningless change, pandering to developed societies’ insecurities and selfishness. Like the societies in which it operates, elements of design have become tools for wasteful consumption.
In these ways design is a contributor to the problem of sustainability. But for us, design that is exclusive, indulgent and aesthetically-driven is contrary to our core values and our view of design.
Good design = Green design
For some products, up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact is defined during design and engineering stages, so careful design makes sense all round.
Good design principles, and Cobalt’s socially responsible approach can have a substantial, positive impact on a product’s sustainability performance. Some of these principles include:
- Performance. Functionality and ‘fitness-for-purpose’ are paramount to good design. When a user has their needs met by a well-designed product they are more likely to keep and use the product without replacement or augmentation. In contrast, a product that does not deliver on its implied purpose through poor performance or design is likely to be replaced or discarded prematurely.
- Simplicity. To us good design seeks to be elegantly simple. A common mantra is ‘less is more’. As a rule we will always seek to develop designs with the minimum number of parts, processes and materials necessary to perform the required functions.
- Manufacturing. Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DFMA) is another basic design objective we use and equates to easy assembly and disassembly- a prerequisite for effective recycling.
Green design = Mainstream business
It’s no coincidence these principles also make good business in terms of reduced cost of goods, brand-appeal and product quality.
And there’s no doubt ‘sustainability’ is rapidly rising as a purchasing criteria for more and more consumers. Even if businesses don’t believe in the ideals, it simply makes business sense to give the market what it wants; more sustainable alternatives.
Over the next few years there will be a rise in overtly sustainable products, like water-saving plant pots or fair-trade homewares. Already here and growing quickly, sustainability as a product attribute will be absolutely mainstream, much in the same way that ‘quality’ and ‘safety’ have become standard within successful brands rather than an extra bonus
What are we doing about it?
We make it our business to learn, improve and keep trying to improve our response to the challenge of being more sustainable.
New sustainability tools to help guide designs are being developed constantly. Here at Cobalt we use a variety of databases and online tools so that we have current information for:
- Material properties (recyclability status, energy and water consumption rates)
- LCA tools to help decide between design alternatives
- Latest materials and products (low-power LEDs, motors, low-VOC paints)
- International standards (RHOS2, WEEE)
- Recycling acceptance and conventions