Designing for Sustainability: An Article by Robin Roy

Making, transporting, using, maintaining and disposing of products all have impacts on the environment. For decades, the usual responses to such environmental problems were attempts by manufacturers to reduce wastes and pollution after they had been produced. Then, with increasingly tough environmental legislation, standards and voluntary agreements, plus pressure from environmental groups and ‘green’ consumers, manufacturers shifted their attention from trying to clean up their products’ environmental impacts during or after manufacture, to designing out as many of the impacts as possible during product development. Designing or redesigning products for the environment may be undertaken to different levels using different approaches – termed ‘Green design’, ‘Ecodesign’, ‘Sustainable design’, and ‘Sustainable innovation’ in the book.

Green design

Green design means addressing one or two environmental objectives – for example conserving resources by using recycled materials or improving a product’s energy efficiency. Concern about the environmental impacts of television, for example, did not become a significant factor in equipment design until the early 21st Century. However, there was growing concern about the amount of electricity used when TV equipment was left on standby. This stimulated regulatory actions, such as the 1999 International Energy Agency’s 1 Watt Initiative, which led to the average new TV set’s standby consumption falling from about 5 watts to 1 watt or less.


Ecodesign is sometimes called life-cycle design, because it attempts a balanced reduction in environmental impacts throughout a product’s life cycle from mining materials to disposal. Life cycle studies of mobile phones demonstrated that their impacts were concentrated on the raw materials, component manufacture and use phases of the life cycle. Different companies therefore focussed their efforts on different parts of the life cycle, from Apple auditing its Chinese factories to ensure pollution compliance during production to other manufacturers designing phone chargers that reduce energy in use. As a general guideline, for mains-powered products the energy impacts in use almost always dominate. For battery-powered products materials extraction, manufacturing of components and batteries, and product use can all give rise to significant impacts. For unpowered products (e.g. furniture) the materials and manufacturing phases normally dominate.

Sustainable design

Sustainable design aims to provide the essential function of a product using the least environmentally harmful solution, for example, by using solar energy instead of grid electricity or batteries to power a product. Sustainable design also includes social and economic considerations, such as a product’s fair trade implications or the health and safety of the workers making it. An example of sustainable design concerns the development and manufacture of smartphones. Major suppliers such as Microsoft and Apple attempt to reduce the energy and resource use of their smartphones by incorporating power-saving software and minimising the amount of material used in manufacture, and to eliminate more harmful substances than is required by legislation. They have also been persuaded by pressure groups and international regulations to stop suppliers employing child labour and avoid ‘conflict minerals’, such as tantalum mined by forced labour in Africa. An ‘ethical’ smartphone specifically designed for sustainability called Fairphone has been developed and was launched in 2013 by a Dutch social enterprise.

Sustainable innovation

Sustainable innovation is even broader in scope than sustainable design and goes beyond technical solutions. Sustainable innovation involves providing a particular function (such as lighting or home entertainment) using environmentally optimal product-service mixes or socio-technical systems. For example, futures studies have proposed a more sustainable system for cleaning clothes. Such a system might include:
- Innovative washing machines, such as machines that use very little water by employing reusable polymer beads to help wash clothes;
- Communal or commercial laundries equipped with the most environmentally efficient technologies, such as heat recovery and water recycling;
- A clothes collection and delivery service that uses the new washing systems.

Robin Roy is Emeritus Professor of Design and Environment at the Open University. Since joining the OU in 1971 as one of the first lecturers in Design, he has chaired and contributed to many OU courses on design, innovation, energy and environment, most recently Design Essentials; Innovation: Designing for change; and Environment: Journeys through a changing world. In 1979, he founded the Design Innovation Group to research design and innovation management and sustainable design. He has published many books, book chapters, papers and articles on topics ranging from design creativity and the successful management of new product development to environmentally sustainable education systems and consumer adoption of low and zero carbon technologies. He is a Fellow and Council member of the Design Research Society, a former Director of Carbon Connections Ltd. and a Trustee of Powerful Information, a local international development charity.

Featured Book

  • Consumer Product Innovation and Sustainable Design

    The Evolution and Impacts of Successful Products, 1st Edition

    By Robin Roy

    Consumer Product Innovation and Sustainable Design follows the innovation and evolution of consumer products from vacuum cleaners to mobile phones from their original inventions to the present day. It discusses how environmental concerns and legislation have influenced their design and…

    Paperback – 2015-11-02

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