In the end, design will save the world. How’s it getting on?

Photo by Bluewater Sweden on Unsplash

We need design

Reduction of consumption will play a role, and we are already seeing changes in how people consider the likes of meat consumption and air travel. Reduction can’t do it all though — humans have needs, not least making money and eating, and this means production and consumption. Humans like consuming. I’m in interested the role replacement will play. New products, new services, that fulfil those same needs but are created, consumed, and disposed of sustainably. Changing the behaviour without compromising. Electric cars, heat pumps, induction stoves, electric leaf blowers, circular cosmetics — this is becoming increasingly possible.

Sustainability overwhelms.

It’s currently a lot of effort to work out if a product is sustainable. Sustainability is complex, nuanced, confusing, unstandardised, easy to greenwash. Is a fast fashion brand that fills landfill but gives to charity ‘good’? It’s high cognitive load; it takes effort. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with 231 SDG indicators in the global framework. There are over 400 sustainability certifications and standards. Every brand describes it differently. Compare with singular simplicity of price, or a quality rating out of 5*. They are instantly understandable. Sustainability needs usability. If we vote with our wallets, it needs to be clear and instinctive who to vote for. Beyond making something exist, attractive, and functional, making complicated things simple and usable is design’s superpower.

Sustainability underwhelms.

Of the reasons to buy a product, sustainability is unlikely to outweigh the more traditional drivers of price, function, convenience, or quality ratings. For sustainability to win, products will need to perform as well as less sustainable competitors. Teslas get bought because they are incredibly well designed and performant products — sustainability is a bottom line more than a headline. With fewer materials to choose from and likely higher associated costs, this makes competing hard. Perhaps eventually policy will step in; you can’t sell unsafe children’s toy, why should you be able to sell an unsustainable one? In the shorter term, looking to design should help. The most successful consumer products are often the best designed — think Apple, IKEA, how Microsoft have turned themselves around. Design-driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219%. How and why this is the case is wonderfully explored by Jon Persson in ‘What is the value of design?

My own intention gap

With these posts I’ll explore how design is turning up in sustainability, and how it’s getting on in the battle for hearts, minds, and wallets.


My ultimate drivers were ease of finding something appropriate, delivery time and cost, and quality rating. A brand I recognised made a difference, and the idea that something was more energy efficient did too. I made some effort, though not a concerted one, to buy more sustainably, but it wasn’t the key driver. I bought not knowing how the products were made, packaged, which SDGs they adhered to or not, and on a platform that I would say I would avoid (Amazon) but in reality found solved my problem.

Where to next

With a foot in both camps of being a designer and student of sustainability, I see that the planet has problems that sustainability needs to fix, but also that sustainability itself has problems that design needs to fix.



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Rich Brown

Rich Brown

Design at Shopify. P/T Master’s student at Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership. I’m the kind of guy who supervised the guy who invented the wheel.