Reflections on design and sustainability, and what should come next


In a number of places I’ve said that there are extremely disparate ways of representing sustainability. They are of different robustness, presented in vastly different ways, and ultimately it is a confusing experience for consumer. The more governments and companies are able to align on ways in which sustainability is judged and communicated the easier it will become for consumers.


Hand in hand with consolidation sits simplification. With there being very different ways of measuring sustainability, there are also different ways of presenting sustainability which makes it difficult to to compare. There are certificates, there are some scores, but when compared to the likes of price or quality rankings, sustainability is undeniably more complicated to both communicate and understand. Designers need to find ways of communicating a product life cycle or sustainable value, and ideally in a way that is consistent across different verticals. Possibly technologies like blockchain will help — how can I quickly understand how ‘good’ a product is and how ethical its supply chain is?


When thinking about e-commerce specifically, at the heart of business success is ranking. Ranking in search results, and impressions attributed by advertising platforms. This is numerical. Relevance, price, delivery time, and quality ratings all factor in to give a product a score which is used to rank. This is what drives sales online. In reviewing how UI design is helping consumers choose sustainable products, it was clear that sustainability is not often quantified in this way. At the moment it is very qualitative, in the domain of text and logo content. It’s easy for brands to lie and hard for consumers to find true digestible information. To help sustainability be a true purchase driver, being quantified in a consistent way and factored into to rankings will mean that sustainable products can truly stand out. The top of Amazon search results should be the most sustainable, not the cheapest.


Friction for the bad thing: at the moment it’s as easy or easier to buy an unsustainable product than it is to buy a sustainable one. Compare that with safety. You can’t buy a new car or a new toy that hasn’t passed the safety standards. It is easy to bring an unsustainable product to market, and harder to launch a sustainable one. This incentivises the bad thing; it’s cheaper, faster, more profitable. Here the design role lies with governments and platforms. Like tobacco got health warnings, would we ever go to a place that treated unsustainable products the same way?


The next few years ago to be critical in our battle to shift consumers to a new place. Today my feeling is that we have been over-reliant on hope, and placed too much belief that consumers will work hard to understand the provenance of the products they buy. The door has been opened for brands to greenwash. What I would love to see over the next few years is designers collaborating across companies and governments to make it easier to do the right thing, and still achieve human needs and once but in a way that is truly sustainable.



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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.