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How to add sustainability to design projects

When people think about sustainability in design projects the first thing that often comes to mind is materials. The sustainable use or re-use of materials is often seen as the way to go. There are however multiple ways to explore sustainability in a design project. These methods can be related to the use of materials but other aspects like processes and business models can also be explored. It’s not an uncommon thought that sustainable production methods are costly, or that sustainable business models are not the biggest money generators and that they therefore might not be that attractive to use. That’s why this process starts with a consideration: what does your product or your company, but most importantly what do you as a designer stand for? Do you want to go full-on towards sustainability and chase your ideal, or do you want to seek a middle ground? There is something there for everyone.

Using waste

A very easy method to start with is the use of waste in your project. This can already start on a small scale with the use of leftover materials in and around your home. Dutch people throw out 490 kilograms of waste every year. While maybe not everything can be used, certainly many things can be. The most common are probably paper and plastic but also think about the old sweatshirt you threw out which is probably a perfectly fine textile. Maybe you can even dye it with pigments you can take from some waste materials in the green bin. But you can also take it further, think about waste from companies such as production facilities or restaurants. In most cases, companies have to pay to dispose of their waste so they might be open to collaboration with you and your project. 

Zero waste

Using waste is certainly a good start but if you want to take it a step further you could also try to avoid producing waste.  This zero-waste principle is becoming increasingly more popular especially in the fashion industry. Designers in this industry apply different patterns and new cutting techniques to prevent having too many cut-offs. While the use of waste may be implemented in your project at a rather late stage, the zero-waste method may require some more thought and preparation. This method does however allow you to work on and with creating a method that can be used to fight the problem instead of working with its consequences.

Business model

Apart from materials, you could also consider creating a business model that focuses on the sustainable use and reuse of your product. More and more startups are entering the market with reusable and refillable products. These products often save on packaging and thereby on waste. You might be familiar with one-time expense products such as reusable cup. An interesting business model is however to attract your customer over and over again through, for example, a subscription model. This is for example seen in the cleaning products industry: you buy a starter pack including a bottle and your follow-up purchase only consists of refills which you can dissolve in water in your reusable bottle. You promote alternatives to single-use plastic and another pro, it allows for customizable products since you keep and reuse them. Similar models can be applied in many different contexts.

So, there are plenty of options but it all comes back to that first consideration: what do I stand for and what do I want to achieve? Maybe you want to be the next great designer known for your impactful designs. Maybe you want to make a powerful statement against consumerism. Or maybe you just want to make a start. Everything is fine, as long as it works for you. 

text Femke van der Loo

visuals Yvonne Bruin

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