What is sustainable design?

Sustainable design is a design approach that values and takes into consideration the principles of social, economic and environmental sustainability. At its best, sustainable design, can eliminate negative environmental impact through skillful, sensitive design.

Sustainable design items require low impact materials, energy efficiency, carbon footprint minimization, design for use and recycling and emotionally durable design, i.e. reducing consumption and waste of resources by increasing the durability of relationships between people and products, through design. Minimal negative environmental impacts and (re)connecting people with the natural environment stand at the core of sustainable design.

In addition to the elimination of negative environmental impact, sustainable design should  contribute to creating meaningful innovations that can shift behavior. The ultimate goal is to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between economy and society, intended to generate long-term relationships between user and object/service and finally to be respectful and mindful of the environmental and social differences.

Victor Papanek and why sustainable design is important

One of the great writers on this topic, Victor Papanek, was a 20th century designer and educator who advocated thoughtful, useable design and constantly railed against certain design aesthetics and pointless things. His masterpiece, ‘Design for the Real World,’ was fittingly published in 1971 and was a book of small advises and great quotes. Papanek said that “design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”

A strong supporter of the socially and ecologically responsible design of products, tools, and community infrastructures, Papanek disapproved of manufactured products that were unsafe, showy, maladapted, or essentially useless. He was angry at the growing mass consumption of the time and the mindless way media promoted it back then. “Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don`t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today,” is a well-known and rigid Papanek quote. Of course, sustainable design doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make products or advertise them. It means thinking through the product from production through usage.

Papanek belongs to a certain time, but his words remain provocative and inspirational. A reason to engage in sustainable design is Papanek and his views.

"Design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself).” – Papanek, 1971

"Design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself).” – Papanek, 1971


One of the main environmental problems we’re facing is the enormous waste generation worldwide. We’re all wanters, and considering the shocking statistics on our trash tendencies, we’re wasters, too. About 250 million tonnes (551 billion pounds) of waste in total are generated in the U.S. alone each year. More specifically, Americans throw away 25,000,000 plastic bottles every hour! Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a safe method of waste disposal. All forms have varying degrees of negative impacts on the environment, public health and local economies — drinking water is contaminated, air is polluted and soil degraded. Attempts to manage waste after it is  produced can fail to eliminate environmental impacts.

The toxic components of household products pose serious health risks and aggravate the trash problem. In the U.S., about eight pounds in every ton of household garbage contains toxic materials, such as heavy metals like nickel, lead, cadmium, and mercury from batteries, and organic compounds found in pesticides, clothes and consumer products. When burned or buried, toxic materials also pose a serious threat to public health and the environment. Each year more than a billion mostly low-quality umbrellas are trashed, for example.

The only way to avoid environmental harm from waste is to prevent its generation. It does not mean doing without, but doing differently. For example, preventing waste pollution from litter caused by disposable beverage containers does not mean doing without beverages; it just means using refillable bottles. When possible, upcycling “waste” is a way to eliminate waste and avoid producing new raw materials, the main source of negative environmental impacts.

A comprehensive design strategy is needed for preventing generation of solid waste. A good garbage prevention strategy would require that everything brought into a facility be recycled for reuse or recycled back into the environment. Over 75% of waste is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. This fact becomes even more striking when it is considered that, for instance, recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy used to make aluminum cans from new material.

So many resources are left on our landfills, polluting our soil, water and air. Linear “Take, Make, Dispose” industrial processes and the lifestyles that feed on them deplete finite reserves to create products that end up in landfills or in incinerators. This unsustainable situation has led to the emergence of new approaches – circular economy or ‘cradle to cradle’ that point out that waste does not have to exist and that promote biological and technical components (nutrients) of a product that are designed by intention to fit within a material cycle, designed for disassembly and re-purposing. The biological nutrients are non-toxic and can be simply composted. Technical nutrients – polymers, alloys and other man-made materials are designed to be used again with minimal energy.

Slow fashion

Unlike fast fashion concepts, imposed by the mainstream fashion industry and its globalized, mass production patterns relying on a number of different collections changing almost monthly, slow fashion advocates a different approach when designing, creating and buying garments. The term was first coined by Kate Fletcher, from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion as a comparison to the Slow Food experience.

As a society we consume 4 times more clothing today than we did just 20 years ago. Slow fashion emphasizes quality and longevity when choosing the fashion garments and as Zady, a lifestyle brand for conscious shoppers, puts it - tries to return to a time when people really believed less was more, picked their fashion items carefully and had their favorite brands to which they connected personally.

A seemingly temporary trend, the slow fashion movement is becoming more and more important and influential with a growing number of eco-sensitive designers and consumers.  Designers, industry titans and environmental activists from Stella McCartney to Susan Sarandon and Wendy Schmidt have declared their support for improvements in sustainability initiatives across the fashion world. The most sophisticated consumers are not interested in what everyone else has; instead, they care about one-of-a-kind and artisan designs, products that often happen to be manufactured more sustainably.

With its main principles – slower production schedules and more transparent process of production, fair wages, lower carbon footprints, and aiming for zero waste, slow fashion is contributing to sustainability. Not only is this approach better for the environment but it’s better for material health and local economies.

Sustainable design examples


Freitag, the Swiss bag manufacturer, pioneered upcycling on an industrial scale by taking on a very specific problem; truck tarps that were built to last on the road for years but had no second life strategy. The company started its sustainable design adventure in 1993 with a design problem — two brothers bicycling with shoulder bags that would easily get wet when raining. The solution — making a bag out of old truck tarp and using a second-hand car seat-belt webbing and old bicycle inner tube for the edging — led to the creation of a company that today produces around 350,000 products per year.

In addition to sustainable sourcing, Freitag nurtures sustainability in every segment of their business. Their Zurich based factory, where they do the tarp cutting, is self-sufficient and about 50% of the heat comes from waste power plants and they use rainfall for tarp washing. Freitag’s production process is transparent to lay their cards on the table instead of leaving their consumers in the dark.

Bionic yarn and Vortex project

Another solution targeting ocean plastic waste emerged recently in the U.S. A massive amount of plastic trash ends up in our oceans every year. After sunlight photo-degrades the plastic into small pieces, aquatic life and sea birds mistake these fragments for food and ingest it. New studies show that ingested plastic damages the internal organs of fish, which also raises the question about the safety of our seafood.

With an aim to remove plastic from the oceans and recycle it, the nonprofit organization Parley for the Oceans, founded in collaboration with the material innovator Bionic Yarn, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society started the Vortex Project. Using the new technology to tackle the ocean plastic waste pollution, Bionic yarn partnered up with G-STAR to turn plastic into bionic yarn used to produce jeans. Pharrell Williams, Creative Director of Bionic Yarn, announced ‘RAW for the Oceans’, a long-term collaboration between denim brand G-Star RAW and Bionic Yarn. The first collection made from recycled ocean plastic was launched in 2014.

Ananas Anam

When it comes to unsustainable and expensive sourcing (cotton, leather) – there is an alternative. Banana stems, pineapple leaves and coconut husks are about to be reinvented as clothes. Around a billion tonnes of banana plant stems are wasted each year, despite research indicating it would only take 37 kg of stems to produce a kilogram of fiber. Same with the coconut husks and their fibrous qualities — a thousand coconuts can produce 10 kg of fiber and harvest is every 30-45 days.

Ananas Anam has developed an innovative, natural and sustainable non-woven textile called Piñatex™. The mass-produced sustainable and versatile textile made from pineapple leaves can be used just like leather to manufacture goods including shoes and handbags in the fashion and accessories industry, as well as for upholstery and in car and aircraft industries. Although it’s still in its prototype phase, it could be economically viable at about 60% of the price of good quality leather.

A last word

We have come a long way since Papanek’s 70s rhetoric. Sustainable design is not about preaching but about exploiting inefficiencies in the market, an organic parallel to arbitrage in the financial system. Creating platforms that provide access to unused materials will be a major challenge and opportunity in the coming years that companies should get behind now. Technology, as in other fields, allows the communication and tracking needed to build a new material sourcing system on a large scale. Sustainability really is Good business.