The circle of life (without restricting the creative process)

Designers are a crucial part of the solution set needed to address the SDGs. But unless they are given resources, time, and skill-development space, then it really is up to each individual designer to enhance their skills in delivering a more socially and environmentally-aligned design.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many different designers wanting to advance sustainability (and more recently circularity) in their roles, from independent consultants to in-house design teams at some of the world’s largest companies. Through these experiences, I’ve identified recurring issues that limit the capacity of professional designers to introduce sustainability and circularity into their practices. In this article, I will explore those issues, along with present opportunities to overcome them and normalize sustainability in design.

Disconnect Between Actions and Impacts

Whilst many designers are all too aware of the powerful social influence design can have on shaping society, there is a disconnect between design decisions about materials, manufacturing, form and lifespan, and the impact that these decisions have on natural resource extraction, ecosystem damage, pollution, social equity, culture, waste and climate change.

Deflection of Responsibility

This disconnect enables a deflection of responsibility to other parts of the product development ecosystem, often being blamed on client demands or the consumers. This lack of agency reinforces the disconnect and thus perpetuates a normalization within the wider design community of non-accountability for social and environmental impacts that result from design decisions.

Time and Resource Constraints

Furthermore, the culture of hyper-consumption perpetuated by the current linear economy creates time pressures for designers that results in unintended impacts. For example, designers, like all professions, need to allocate resources to enhance their skills and assess the impacts of their actions as technology and regulations change over time. However, because designers are often subject to fast-paced demands, they have limited ability to explore alternative materials or processes for their designs, or to integrate sustainable design decisions like conducting streamlined Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) into their work outputs.


Addressing These Issues

These issues can be addressed through professional development and industry-specific support tools such as CAD-integrated LCA tools, as well as through the development of policies that require specific levels of professional accountability from designers. Such policies validate the time investment on the part of themselves, their employer or academic institute, ensuring that they have the allocated time to gain the additional needed skills to deliver economically-viable, socially-responsible and planet-positive products.

It’s clear that there is a growing need for design professionals to enhance their capacity to respond to changing market demands (such as new legislation in Europe, specific examples being the French Repairability Index and updates to the Eco Design Directive), but based on the previous points, there exists a significant gap between desire, motivation, skills and action.

To address these issues, we do need a new normal within the profession — one where agency, accountability and policy are aligned. One opportunity to enact this at a national level is through National Design Policies that not only speak to the economic influence of the design professions but also provide minimum standards of accountability for design actions on society and the environment.

Having national standards elevates all designers within that region, supporting their motivation to learn the sustainability-in-design skills needed to respond to circularity and climate change.

This could take several forms, but any accountability standards should not restrict the creative process; instead, based on the national context, they should provide the baseline requirements for designers when developing products and services to adhere to in relation to assessing and selecting planet and people-positive outcomes. This includes ensuring that all products have an end-of-life solution that are relevant to the country that the products are being sold in, which could be recycling, reuse or a company-operated take-back program. Ensuring materials are safe and best fit within an existing or planned end-of-life scenario, enhancing the repairability, remanufacturing and exploring reuse scenarios are further examples.

Having national standards elevates all designers within that region, supporting their motivation to learn the sustainability-in-design skills needed to respond to circularity and climate change. It will also enable designers to push back on deadlines that don’t allow for product impact assessments and provide accountability measures for employers to enable their teams to gain additional knowledge and capacity in sustainable and circular design. 

Another main reason interventions should be created at the national policy level is to ensure that there are no free riders; in other words, when one designer or company refuses to create an unsustainable product, the client can’t just get another provider who is willing to do that type of work.

Addressing the impact of design on society and the planet is a must.

In closing, addressing the impact of design on society and the planet is a must, not just in response to growing regulatory demands, but also due to the increased pressure that hyper-consumerism has had on the very systems that sustain life. Designers are a crucial part of the solution-set needed to address the SDGs, but unless they are given the resources, time, and skill development space, then it really is up to each individual to find the capacity to enhance their skills in delivering more socially and environmentally-aligned design to market.  

The opportunity outlined here for National Design Policies featuring accountability standards for circularity will help level the playing field and create clear frameworks for enacting processes and providing accountability measures. Just as integrity has been built into other influential professions like the medical sector, our entire industry will benefit from elevating accountability within the product development process. By working with governments to help them see the power and influence of design, we can elevate the capacity for design to be a leading force for creating a future that works better for all of us.


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