Pursuing sustainability means investing in design

Industrial Designer

Design plays a pivotal role in the success of sustainable products, balancing consumer, business, and environmental needs.

But if you’ve ever tried to bring a sustainable product to market, you know the feeling of wanting to give up on something you believe in. Designers, engineers, strategists, and business leaders who start out wanting to do a good thing for the environment end up jaded by the process. From the outside, the solution seems simple: if we just transform how we make things, what we make them from, and how we throw them away, sustainable consumption is possible. But it’s not that simple. There are seemingly endless obstacles to innovation in this space – manufacturing capabilities, material development, supply chains, environmental regulations, business needs, waste infrastructure – and the more one knows about this web of complexities, the harder it is to believe that design can make a difference at all.

The good news is that the most crucial variable of all is one design is uniquely positioned to solve for: people. Understanding what people need and where they’re coming from is integral to how we work at Smart Design, and it’s how we’ve helped major companies like PepsiCo, CVS, Unilever, SC Johnson, and OXO pursue their sustainability goals. We can overcome all the technical hurdles to create the most innovative, low-waste products, but what good is a paper straw if no one wants to use it? Talking to consumers has shown us that sometimes the best way to design for the environment is to design for people, first…and innovation isn’t always the right answer. It’s about more than just material inputs and outputs; what we’re asking of people needs to be sustainable, too.

Talking to consumers has shown us that sometimes the best way to design for the environment is to design for people, first… and innovation isn’t always the right answer.

A human-centered design approach helps us meet consumers where they are while looking out for the planet in the long-term. This balance is key to the success of sustainable products, but it’s hard to achieve. Talking to consumers has given us three key insights into why these don’t always catch on, and how design can help:

Caring about the environment isn’t enough to change behavior

Although many Americans (roughly 53% according to Yale’s Six America’s Study) are concerned about the environment, it’s not top of mind when they browse the aisles. We’ve spoken to people who care a lot about the planet and people who barely care at all, but when it comes to product choice they agree: cost, product performance, convenience, and personal health all come before sustainability. 

Sometimes people feel guilty when they choose disposable products for the sake of convenience, but they also don’t feel like it’s possible (or reasonable) to aim for zero impact in every single thing they do, especially when the sustainable option requires them to change their behavior. Even eco-conscious consumers draw the line somewhere. In our work designing sustainable feminine care products, we spoke to consumers who said they’d go out of their way to lower their carbon footprint most of the time, but switching their menstrual products felt like a step too far. Only 8% of the people we surveyed said they’d be willing to try a new product just because it was better for the environment.

I like trying to be more environmentally friendly but at the same time I want to be comfortable with the things that I’m used to using... [I want something] in between where I could feel a little bit better about using the products I like.

We can’t expect consumers to turn their behaviors around overnight and start putting the planet before everything else. The scale of the climate crisis makes it hard to see how one person can make a difference at all, and this feeling grows when people believe they’re being asked to change too much, too quickly. Making products greener is a marathon, not a sprint; designers and companies need to stay attuned to how much change consumers can handle at a time – and let people feel good about making a greener choice even if it’s just a little bit better than what they were using before. Otherwise, we risk making eco-friendly products feel alienating and constantly out-of-reach.

People assume eco-friendly products can’t meet their needs

Choosing single-use means choosing convenience, and consumers are content to spend if they can save time and effort in exchange. More sustainable practices like reuse, mending, and repair seem like more work than they’re worth when there’s always the option to buy something new. Disposable products have come to feel like both a luxury and a necessity for the modern consumer; they’ve made life so much easier that it’s hard to imagine how we’d manage without them.

But sustainable single-use products can end up feeling like a serious trade-off. Users have told us that they assume any product advertised with claims like “plant-based,” “compostable,” or “all-natural” is likely to be flimsy, low quality, or less effective than the products they’re used to. It’s even harder for consumers to justify the sustainable choice when it costs more than what they’re already using; it seems like “doing the right thing” means you pay more, and you get less. People assume that if a product claims to be better for the environment, that’s all it has going for it – and the eco-benefit will come at the expense of their experience.

I wouldn’t want to compromise what’s convenient to me and suffer in order to make it work.

Green products are more likely to succeed when sustainability is an added bonus, not the main selling point. Most consumers won’t change if it feels like they’re giving something up, so sustainable products need to offer them an even better experience that what they’re used to. Refillable packing, for example, asks a lot of users – so in our work designing refillable platforms like Etude House’s Mini Two Match Lipstick and Gatorade Gx Pods and Bottle system, we looked for ways to compensate consumers with features like personalization and portability. Pairing added benefits for the user with added benefits for the environment is an effective strategy that helps motivate consumers to choose – and then stick with – sustainable products.

Consumers feel like it’s all on them

Many single-use products on the market today rely on consumer behavior to actually make them sustainable. If the product or package isn’t disposed of at the right place in the right way, its environmental benefits could diminish greatly – and it’s easy for this to happen when waste infrastructure varies so much from place to place, as does consumer knowledge about the right thing to do. Product choice has also been given an ethical weight that makes consumers feel responsible for the environmental impact built into everything they buy, even though they have no control over the process that happens before it reaches the shelf. When did choosing a brand of paper towels or a deodorant become a moral quandary? This isn’t fair to consumers, nor is it an effective strategy for sustainability.

It does feel obvious to consumers that certain materials are better for the environment, but it’s not obvious why or how. Plant-based plastic is a major offender; through earth tones and natural textures, it easily attracts the sustainability-minded consumer who wants the convenience of single-use plastic without the guilt that comes when they throw it away. People believe or hope that anything plant-based will “return to the earth,” even if it ends up in a landfill, but this is not the case…and consumers have to do their own research to find that out.

I used to be really hard on myself... but also, I know that given the system that we live in and how things are set up, I know that there's only so much I can do as a consumer.

A lot of consumers realize that they don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re frustrated that they have to figure it out on their own. People we’ve spoken to across the US have told us they feel like “companies have that responsibility to choose the more sustainable options.” Consumers shouldn’t have to do all the work; if we’re asking people to change, we need to design sustainable products so the desired behavior is clear, intuitive, and easy. Through this more empathetic approach we can unburden consumers and ensure that sustainable products have the impact they were intended to have.

The success of sustainable products depends on human-centered design.

Talking to consumers has taught us to take a step back and think about sustainability as a journey rather than a destination. Products that are only a little bit better for the environment are still worth making in a space where too much change often scares people away, and where true innovation is hard to achieve. Change takes time, and consumers are looking to the companies who make their products to support them and make it easier to do the right thing. Taking baby steps isn’t a compromise, but a design strategy.

So design can make a difference after all. In fact, design can be the difference. While the technical obstacles to sustainable product development sometimes feel impossible to overcome, we still believe that there is a greener future ahead. And a more empathetic, people-driven design approach will get us there…one step at a time.

About Lizzie Wright

Lizzie is an Industrial Designer who believes that design can save the planet. She brings expertise in design research, sustainable material development, manufacturing, and behavioral psychology, which she’s learned through her work in packaging, health and personal care, consumer goods, and electronics accessories. At Smart Design, she’s worked with a range of clients including CVS, PepsiCo, OXO, Astra Zeneca, and Mrs. Meyer’s. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and a certificate in Sustainability and Behavior Change from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). When she’s not working, you can probably find her running or cycling through Brooklyn.

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