Design and Make Sustainable Products

December 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Reduce

Designers and manufacturers can design and make sustainable products and packaging that are durable and non-toxic, use less materials and resources during its entire life cycle, and can be reused, repaired or recycled.

To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things – products, packaging and systems – from the very beginning in the understanding that waste does not exist. – Jonathon Porritt, Capitalism as if the World Matters

Several sustainable design and product principles have been developed over the years and we look at some of them below:

  1. Biomimicry
  2. Cradle to Cradle
  3. Design for the Environment
  4. Life Cycle Assessment
  5. The Natural Step
  6. Other Resources

If you’re a designer or manufacturer, learn and adopt these sustainable principles in your product or packaging.

1. Biomimicry

Biomimicry is a new science and design principle developed by Janine Benyus, the author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and the President of The Biomimicry Institute. Biomimicry is about learning from nature and studying what works in nature, and then imitating these best ideas, designs and processes to solve our problems.

Learn more from this 24-min TED video by Janine Benyus on the 12 sustainable design ideas from nature.


You can also check out Ask Nature, a free open source database by The Biomimicry Institute, where architects, designers and engineers can search for nature’s best solutions and bio-inspired products, and network with the biomimicry community.

2. Cradle to Cradle

William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote the book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which popularised the new cradle to cradle sustainable design principles. In their explanation:

Cradle to Cradle Design offers a clear alternative, a framework in which the safe, regenerative productivity of nature provides models for wholly positive human designs. Working from this perspective, we do not aim to be less bad. Instead, our design assignment is to create a world of interdependent natural and human systems powered by the sun in which safe, healthful materials flow in regenerative cycles, elegantly and equitably deployed for the benefit of all.

Within this framework, every material is designed to provide a wide spectrum of renewable assets. After a useful life as a healthful product, cradle-to-cradle materials are designed to replenish the earth with safe, fecund matter or to supply high quality technical resources for the next generation of products. When materials and products are created specifically for use within these closed-loop cycles – the flow of biological materials through nature’s nutrient cycles and the circulation of industrial materials from producer to customer to producer – businesses can realize both enormous short-term growth and enduring prosperity. As well, we can begin to re-design the very foundations of industry, creating systems that purify air, land and water; use current solar income and generate no toxic waste; use only safe, healthful, regenerative materials; and whose benefits enhance all life.

Learn more about Cradle to Cradle design from the MBDC website or William McDonough’s website. You can also learn about the wisdom of designing Cradle to Cradle from this 20-min TED video by William McDonough.



3. Design for the Environment

Design for the Environment (DfE) is simply an approach taken by companies to make business decisions that consider environmental impacts. Some call it eco-design or just green design.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) started the Design for the Environment Program in the 1990s and has been working with industries to integrate health and environmental considerations in business decisions. Learn more from the DfE website.

4. Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a methodological tool that applies life cycle thinking and assesses the environmental aspects and impacts associated with a product, process, or service. LCA estimates the environmental impacts resulting from all stages in the product life cycle, from raw material extraction, production, transportation, usage to disposal.

Learn more about LCA from the European Platform on LCA and the USEPA website, or about the Life Cycle Initiative from the UNEP website. If you wish to apply life cycle assessment for your product and need help, check with the Sustainable Manufacturing Centre at the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech).

5. The Natural Step

The Natural Step Framework is developed by Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt and is a strategic decision making and comprehensive planning model, based on systems thinking and using the four basic sustainability principles to guide individuals and organisations. The Four Principles of Sustainability state that:

To become a sustainable society we must…

1. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)

2. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )

3. eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and

4. eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).

One company that adopted The Natural Step (TNS) was IKEA. In 1990, IKEA adopted The Natural Step as the basis of its environmental policy and plan, and used the TNS principles to change its products and services. More info and resources about The Natural Step can be found at The Natural Step website.

6. Other Resources

We love MUJI products for their simplicity – Simple is Beautiful. The design of MUJI products is natural and simple. The manufacturing processes of MUJI products are simplified and unnecessary steps are eliminated. MUJI product packaging are also simple, plain and uniform. All these steps help to reduce waste and costs, giving consumers good quality products at lower prices. If retailers learn from MUJI and simplify their materials, processes and packaging, imagine the waste that can be eliminated.

Related Posts


2 Responses to “Design and Make Sustainable Products”


Check out what others are saying about this post...

Add New Comment

Tell us what you're thinking.