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What is sustainable design and how can consumers identify it?

Logo soup.
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What does it take for a design to be truly sustainable? For such an oft-used concept associated with earth-friendly fashion, furniture, or architecture, there’s no consensus on what it actually entails. But we know it’s important. According to the UK Design Council, over 80% of a product’s ecological impact (pdf) is determined during the design phase.

“Sustainable design” is a coupling of two slippery concepts—sustainability and design.

Perhaps the most common understanding of sustainability is drawn from a 1987 UN paper that defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But that’s hardly a concrete definition.

And then there’s the varying usage of the word “design.” Deployed as both a noun and a verb and often conflated with art or style, it’s a term that professional designers still love to debate. There are many fields of specialization within the design profession—architecture, fashion, experience design, interiors, interactive design, graphic design, product design, and web design, to name a few—and each has its own parlance and practices.

Rio Helmi/Images courtesy of Ibuku
The Sharma Springs House in Bali, Indonesia, is an icon of sustainable architecture.

The US General Services Administration defines sustainable design as interventions that “reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance.” The US Environmental Protection Agency similarly describes it in terms of green architecture.

But there are plenty of other design disciplines that use the term. And even they don’t have a single definition to go by.

“Different practitioners use different terms to mean the same thing,” says Michael Kung, program director for the sustainable design master’s program at University of Florida’s College of Design, Construction and Planning. “Within our program, faculty members have their own beliefs on what sustainability is. Overall it’s a world view or a philosophy.”

“There is not one universally accepted definition of ‘sustainable design’ that I’m aware of,” says

Denise DeLuca, director of the sustainable design program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, says the “basic lack of understanding about both of the words”—sustainable and design—”means there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding.”

The biggest misunderstanding, she says, is to use “sustainable design” to describe act of creating “less bad versions of something unsustainable.” For instance, designing cars with more efficient internal combustion engines doesn’t erase their impact, despite how car manufacturers tout their green vehicles. “There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s cleaner burning but you cannot burn fossil fuels at all if you want to be sustainable,” she says.

Reuters/Antonio Bronic
Murky waters.

Similarly, a building with the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification can’t claim that it isn’t polluting the planet. “They’ve made a huge leap forward and helped bring manufacturers, architects, and construction companies along,” DeLuca notes. “But it’s still not sustainable.”

The problem with eco labels

Compounding the confusion is the dizzying array of seals, certificates, green stickers and “eco labels.” Originally conceived so consumers can swiftly recognize conscientiously-made goods and services, the circus of eco-themed emblems on product packaging and signage can sow confusion. As much as there’s no universal definition of sustainable design, there’s also not one globally accepted symbol for it.

German “Blue Angel” c. 1978

Germany’s “Blue Angel” seal (Der Blaue Engel) is considered to be the first eco label in history. Launched in 1978, the seal was meant to guide consumers in “selecting environmentally-friendly products” on the shelf. Over the years, many countries have also issued national seals to mark goods that abide by their unique criteria for sustainability.

Independent certification bodies like Fair Trade International or the Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility Research as well as industry associations such as US Green Building Council or Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association, have come up with their own designs. (Ecolabel Index offers a global directory of labels and certifications.)

It can be tricky to discern what symbols to trust. There’s an annual World Ecolabel Day to spotlight the importance of credible markings and marketing. Some eco labels are regulated by the International Organization for Standardization but other seals are created by companies as a facet of their branding and communication programs.

Future Prosperity

Future Prosperity, a new lifestyle brand that sells sustainably-made kitchen and bathroom products, created a seal as part of their launch. In the spirit Germany’s Blue Angel, the minimalist FPXII Certified seal is meant to help consumers choose responsibly-made products, explains co-founder Vanessa Black.  Contrary to the prevailing aesthetic in the eco product space, she notes that they steered away from the color green after reading a study that most men don’t respond to environmental appeals presented in greens and blues because they perceive it as feminine.

Gaining a fuller understanding of sustainable design entails diving into each design field. What follows is a breakdown of symbols and terms used by specialization. Note that this is not an exhaustive list and that some eco-labels—like FSC-certified seal which could appear on reams of office paper, construction materials, milk packaging, guitars, or yoga mats—are at times used across several fields.

Architecture and urban design

Scope: planning and design of buildings, building materials, construction, city planning, landscape design, urban design

Common terms: active systems, biomimicry, green building, life-cycle assessment, net zero architecture, mycelium, off-grid, froogle, lilacwater, Kyoto protocol, passive architecture, sick building syndrome

Sample seals and certifications:

Sustainable architecture credentials

Fashion design

Scope: apparel, footwear, jewelry, accessories, fashion marketing, and events

Common terms: buy local, circular fashion, cost-per-wear, cruelty-free, eco-friendly, ethically-made, fair trade, fast fashion, organic, recyclable, slow fashion, traceability, upcycled fabrics

Sample seals and certifications:

Sustainable fashion emblems

Graphic design

Scope: brand and logo design, packaging, printing, poster design,  publishing, signage, and wayfinding

Common terms: dye sublimation inks, FSC-certified, soy-based inks, low- or no-VOC paints and stains, post-consumer waste paper, UV-curable inks, virgin pulp, water-based adhesives, water-soluble inks

Sample seals and certifications:

Green graphic design

Interior design

Scope: residential and commercial interiors, office planning, furniture design, paint, and manufacturing

Common terms: biophilic design, carbon-neutral design, energy efficiency, volatile organic compounds, indoor air quality, health and well-being, reclaimed wood, recycling, repair, repurposed, upcycling, zero-energy design

Sample seals and certifications:

Some ecolabels in interior design

Industrial design

Scope: consumer electronics, medical devices, wearables, service design, furniture design

Common terms: biodegradable, cradle-to-cradle, compostable, design for disassembly, non-toxic, lifecycle analysis, local fabrication, post-consumer waste, PLA, PET (or PETE), PVC, micro-plastics, rapidly renewable materials, repair, smart design,

Sample seals and certifications:

Common ecolabels in products

Beyond sustainable design

Even advocates of “sustainable design” don’t always like the term, arguing that the goals associated with it have proven to be too narrow. “‘Regenerative design‘ does a better job of capturing the field’s goals from an environmental perspective,” DeLuca explains, “However, it doesn’t really capture the human or social perspectives.”

Future Prosperity’s Black notes that brands are often too focused on talking up their sustainability efforts. “To sustain is to maintain, but to regenerate is to restore,” she argues.

“For those of us who have been involved in sustainable design for 30 years or more, it is painful to accept how badly sustainability has failed to prevent the multiple environmental crises from worsening. The implication, and all too often the reality, has been that fully sustainable simply meant ‘100% less bad’,” writes architect Michael Pawlyn. “We urgently need to shift to optimize positives and repair the damage done to our life support systems.”

DeLuca, who is on the board of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, says designers have a unique role in finding out-of-the-box solutions for the climate emergency. “Designers have this incredible skill set that we need in sustainability,” she says. “Designers have the capacity for imagining what sustainability could be beyond the problem set and making them tangible. They can help us map out possibilities so we don’t keep settling for those less bad solutions.”

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