In the end, design will save the world. How’s it getting on?
Here’s a very big question that we need to find answers to:
How will sustainability win?
We all need sustainability to win — we know that how we currently consume is, well, unsustainable. Let’s imagine what winning looks like: all the products and services we buy fulfil human needs and wants without destroying ecosystems or lives. How are we going to get there?
As a designer at Shopify, a large e-commerce platform, and a part time student at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, I want to explore and learn how commerce can be part of the sustainability solution and not the problem. I’ll be looking mostly through the lens of consumer products, and how close sustainability is getting to the default in normal purchase journeys.
“In one recent survey 65% said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26% actually do so.” HBR: The Elusive Green Customer
There is an intention gap. How people describe their sustainability intentions differs from the reality; how does that gap get bridged? Whilst plenty of work is going on to make supply chains more sustainable, the success of those efforts boils down to the choice a consumer makes. Sustainability will either need to become a true driver, the law, or both. It has to get easier to buy better.
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.
When new products and services come to life, it’s design that shapes them. Designers have crafted the buttons we click on the digital interfaces we buy from, the way real life retail looks and feels, the products themselves, the packaging— even the way a product’s afterlife is planned. Replacing is redesigning. Fixing the way the world works will hinge on design.
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.
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.
To set a baseline, I want to match my own idealism with realism. I’ll start by analysing an actual purchase journey of my own, that I hope in time from now looks very different. How, if at all, does sustainability turn up?
This is a light in our house:
It has a dead light bulb. Let’s get a new one! This is my real journey to how I did that.
I look at the old lightbulb to try and work out what I need. It says GU10. What next? This is a really functional purchase; I’m not looking to show off about my choice of lightbulbs. I’m looking to get this purchase sorted fast. What do I ACTUALLY do in those situations? One of two things: I Google it, or I head to Amazon, because I know that if what I need is anywhere it’ll be there, with free delivery, and clear ratings. For this I try going through Google, and add ‘sustainable’ to my search:
The first link I click is broken:
The second link looks promising:
But when clicking through it’s tons of text:
So I click back. I try the Google Shopping tab, and change my search from ‘sustainable’ to ‘eco’ as I’m seeing that in places. I then see something interesting, which is that there’s a product nearby in a local store:
But I can’t get it delivered:
By this point I decide that I’m tiring and I go for Amazon — I know I’ll find something. I head to the app on my phone. I know Amazon has recently released a Climate Pledge filter, so I look for that, but it’s not there:
I sort by price and scroll through options. I’m flipping the Prime toggle as I know it’ll be quicker and free delivery, searching through. I don’t read reviews as I think it’s pretty clear what this product does, but I am definitely keeping an eye on ratings.
In the end my eye is caught by some Phillips bulbs, a brand I know and trust, which are at a good price point with great ratings.
I purchased and received the lightbulbs the next day. They did the job.
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.
In subsequent posts I’ll be exploring how design is doing in getting closer to shaping that future where sustainability wins.