July 2021
Sustainability in Product Innovation: State of the Industry
<a href="https://sundbergferar.com/author/lauren-burger/" target="_self">Lauren Burger</a>
Lauren Burger

Senior Design Strategist

The Case for Sustainability in Product Design, Development, and Manufacturing

The case for sustainability only becomes more urgent with each passing year. This month, IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) held their annual Sustainability Deep Dive to address these industry issues and our unique position as designers and innovation leaders to affect change in large corporations and small businesses alike. Our Senior Design Strategist, Lauren Burger, and our Product Design Manager, Dan Genord, covered the conference and collected the highlights of what you need to know as a designer, director, strategic business leader, or creative team manager as you travel the road to making your designs better for our earth and for humanity.

Many of us have heard the environmental and social arguments underscoring the importance of sustainability: Climate change leads the charge reminding us daily of rising global temperatures and changing environmental phenomena as we fight increasing wildfires and watch our arctic ice melt away. Plastics pollution is another issue brought vividly to mind by photos of ocean horizons blanketed with plastic debris and animals suffering from injuries caused by straws, bags and the rest of it. Irresponsible production and consumption behaviors in developed countries like ours only exacerbate the situation, and while these tragedies tug at our heart strings, even now we struggle as a society to find a place for sustainability in the business acumen that governs our daily work and industries.

Sustainability in Product Innovation: State of the Industry

Just as important as social and environmental arguments is making the business case for sustainability. In fact, according to Al Iannuzzi, VP of Sustainability at The Estée Lauder Companies, we can’t afford to ignore it. In his presentation (pictured above), he gave voice to an increasingly common acknowledgment that we are in a new era of constrained resources. Projections say that we’ll have 3 billion more middle class consumer by 2030, the global car fleet will double, and countries like China and India are already forced to cope with urbanization demands by building 1-2.5 cities the size of Chicago per year. Combine that with the flattening curve of new mining discoveries and rising costs of most natural resources, and all of us are in a tight spot. Market competition will only increase for businesses worldwide and the resources available with which to compete will diminish. This alone should give us a wakeup call as designers and business leaders to be planning in view of these conditions now.

What does this mean for the business case for sustainability? Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, the financial bottom line is still the most immediately motivating factor for many business and creative leaders. However, as demonstrated above, if you want to be able to lead the market and turn a higher profit than competitors, instead of clambering for increasingly constrained resources and saturated market share, the only way forward is to consider a triple bottom line, and sustainable advantages. The bottom line is in fact at stake here.

1) For one, stakeholders themselves are demanding higher standards. Consumers want to purchase products that help them live sustainably. Businesses that deliver on this metric get demonstrably better market visibility, in part from their consumers themselves. Moreover, companies that make great products that are sustainable naturally become leaders in an economy where most companies are only just beginning the journey or haven’t even started yet. Employees want to work for employers whose values reflect their own, and companies who adopt sustainable values and practices can attract the best of the best. Investors also put their money into sustainable projects. From January to November 2020, investors in mutual funds and ETFs globally invested $288 billion in sustainable products, a 96% increase over the whole of 2019.

2) Moving your business towards sustainable practices also improves supply risk in a world with increasing shortages of materials/energy sources. It can reduce some production costs when reusing materials, using fewer resources, sourcing locally and more. With these benefits in mind, whether you’re leading design and product development in a small local business or a multi-national manufacturer, now is the time to start implementing sustainability into your strategy. The good news is that many companies have gone before you already in navigating this journey and proving the long-term benefits of sustainable considerations in their product pipeline.


How to move towards Sustainability in Product Design, Development & Manufacturing

So how do you figure out how and where to start? The answer must be unique for your business, and it’s important to remember that it’s okay to start small. A good place to start is by understanding the frameworks that exist to define sustainability. An awareness of these can help you evaluate your own unique product design, development, and manufacturing cycle and begin to identify areas where changes could be made for sustainable impact. Go after the low hanging fruit first and work your way forward from there.

If you aren’t familiar with it, work at developing a thorough understanding of the details and unique aspects of your company’s product life cycle, because it’s these that allow you to determine not only how the phases of your product life cycle can be optimized for sustainability, but also what makes the best sense to tackle first or later from a business feasibility standpoint. The diagram above gives a general overview of the phases of the product lifecycle for you to start thinking about and investigate in your business.

To give you a flavor of the different sustainability frameworks that were covered in the Sustainability Deep Dive, this Planetary Boundary chart (below) developed in 2009 with the direction of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and other internationally renowned scientists helps define 9 environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate as well as showing which are areas of concern. This chart provides some context to the areas of impact toward which your strategy and products can be targeted.

You may already be familiar with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These provide a broad and straightforward list you can also reference as you plan your own sustainability goals.

Sustainability starts in the design phase

Now that you have a better idea of what areas you can tackle, how can you tackle them most effectively? To use an much quoted Japanese term – Genba. Go to the point of origin. Start with the root of the problem where new products are first conceived – with design.

According to Tim C. McAloone, 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product *. This means that industrial design plays one of the single most impactful roles in helping you create a sustainable product strategy and reach your business growth & sustainability goals. The industry push is now away from linear design to circular design. This means moving from a “take, make, waste” model where we take resources from the earth to make products to be used and then disposed of, and transitioning to an approach where we use the power of design to 1) design out waste and pollution 2) keep products and materials in use longer, and 3) regenerate natural systems.

If you’re an industrial designer, or design manager or director, this means you have incredible power to create a sustainable future just by doing your job with excellence and using the concrete practices below to increase the quality and thoughtfulness of your designs.

If you’re a business leader, or own the sustainability or innovation roadmap for your company – don’t waste any time in getting aligned with and becoming best friends with your internal design team! They are your most effective tool in revolutionizing your product life cycle and sustainable strategy. If you don’t have an internal design team, or just lack the bandwidth, hire an external design studio. Look for one with depth of experience and expertise in creating market leading products who will interface well with your company. Check out this article for tips on what you should look for when hiring an external design partner.

Meanwhile, here are some concrete methods that all of us as industrial designers and business & innovation leaders can put into practice to create sustainable products.


1) “Designing out waste”

Light-weighting – this is an obvious one that means it doesn’t take as much energy to operate a product (vehicle, kitchen appliance etc.) It also decreases the amount of materials needed for the production process.
Responsible material choices – it may require a bit more research work up front, but with the future of the world and availability of resources for your business in the balance, work at using sustainably sourced, recyclable, or renewable materials.
Efficiency of use phase – create designs that require minimal inputs to function/reduces product footprint (e.g., doesn’t have to be charged often, good gas mileage, automatically turns off water when hands aren’t below the faucet, etc.)

2) Keep products/materials in use longer

Displace the disposal part of a product’s life cycle with something sustainable, such as reusing the product or refurbishing it, before eventually recycling it. Designing the product not for planned obsolescence but for repairability, modularity, long-term durability actually gives you more opportunities to serve your consumers and create revenue streams – plus, it speaks volumes about your brand integrity in a world where most products are cheaply made.
Consider this example above from Terracycle and Loop where they designed their packaging so that consumers can use up the contents of their bottles and containers and return empties to the company where they’re cleaned, refilled, and used to sell more product.

For business leaders, consider these sustainable business practices below and how you can incorporate them into your business model.
Replace single-use products with service models (eg. leasing out a product, or adopting a sharing model)
End of life responsibility – take back, recapture, recycle or re-manufacture your products at the end of their usable life
Create Transparency with your customers and consumers in your sourcing, materials, and ingredients
Responsible manufacturing – decrease the energy and emissions used to manufacture your products
Sustainable operations for buildings/retail locations
Internal employee education about sustainability

3) Regenerate Natural Systems

You can also offset your business’ environmental footprint not just by decreasing your negative impact, but by increasing your active contributions to the society and our biosphere, referred to as your “handprint”. You can give back to the natural systems of your community like socio-economic security, access to clean water or healthful food, renewable resources, waste treatment, replenishing plant and animal populations and more by creating external social & environmental investments in programs that align with and connect with your brand.

Whatever approach you decide to take, make sure to set concrete goals, and measure and track your efforts! This may sound daunting, or tedious, but the rewards are important. It not only keeps you accountable to yourself, you can also use it to tell your sustainable story to customers, investors, and consumers, and increase your brand value and loyalty. It also helps to align and mobilize your internal teams by showing them where you are now, and what you’re working towards as a team. It motivates your team to keep going and not give up as they see how much progress the company has made. And no matter how much or how little that is, the point is that progress is being made for a sustainable future. That’s something to be proud of. Consider some practical examples of how companies like 7th Generation, above, keep themselves accountable and also tell a compelling sustainability story to their users through this environmental score care for their laundry detergent, or these specific sustainability goals below set by BMW.

You can do it!!

With all the information we just threw at you, we want to encourage you with a final word that it is absolutely okay to start small! Once businesses and designers have identified sustainability as an area of importance, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue or by trying to get clients & stakeholders to make a large investment in sustainability when it may not have been an area of focus in the past. However, small, consistent efforts to improve sustainability can add up over time, and are often a way to slowly integrate sustainability efforts (and it’s so much better than nothing)! One example from the conference was given by Ren DeCherney from International Living Future Institute. She talked about how she made the “executive decision” to change the paint they were using in a project from a paint that had lots of toxins in it, to one that was certified as being free from ingredients on the Red List. It didn’t have a world-altering impact, but it was something positive to start with that was within her control.

“Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone.”

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit said “Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone.”

Today, let yourself feel empowered to make a change – whether all you can do is make a personal commitment as a designer, or you have the influence to build your sustainability design roadmap and put it into action. You’re not in it alone. If you’re looking for help to create products designed for sustainability or a sustainable innovation strategy, we’d love to talk with you! Drop us a note!

If all of us simply start with the small things we can control, together we can move towards a sustainable future.


Further Reading:

Making the Business Case for Sustainability – Harvard Business School

What is the Circular Economy – Ellen Macarthur Foundation

And hey, if you’re looking for an innovation partner to help you realize your product design & strategy goals, or you’re looking for design leadership to bring more skills and guidance to the table – reach out to us! 

We’d love to talk! hello@sundbergferar.com


Lauren Burger

Senior Design Strategist

With a background emphasizing the importance of combining both human desirability with engineering feasibility in design, Lauren has a deep passion for understanding the needs of people and how they translate to a business growth strategy. She spent her early career growing and running her own small business, including managing new product innovation, instituting a multi-channel retail approach, and developing all marketing and PR communications. From there, she spent the next several years expanding her consumer research and business strategy skills at Gongos, Inc., where she specialized in bringing a human-centric approach to knowledge synthesis, trends, and innovation projects. 

Outside the professional world, she likes to spend her time trying out new vegetarian recipes, expanding her backyard garden, kayaking, weight training, and dreaming up her next home renovation project.

More thoughts from Lauren