Reflections on design and sustainability, and what should come next
Looking back on the blogs that I have produced over the last couple of years, I wanted to pull out the key themes and look for what I hope that design can help solve for in the future around sustainability. I’ve boldly suggested that designers are going to save the world, and here I want to look at what broad ideas I think we need to address to make a better future possible. It’s worth revisiting what I think that a better future might look like:
People buy sustainably by default.
We’re able to meet our needs in a way that is not long-term detrimental to people or planet. That is going to require us to shift purchasing behaviour to different types of products, but I personally don’t think that our needs should suffer as a consequence. An electric car achieves the same job as a petrol car in a different way.
Here are themes that I would love to see addressed by designers to make that sustainable future more achievable:
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?
As an aside it has made me think that the way we should think about decarbonisation is in the way we think about removing safety hazards. We don’t factor asbestos into our plans anymore. We don’t build around the premise of there being no seatbelts. Often sustainability get seen as an alternative to efficiency, a cost. I’ve seen this locally where my city’s council has declared a Climate Emergency and factors lower carbon into plans. Those who disagree pit it as sustainability vs basic services, where the narrative should be sustainability as a criteria for all decisions, not a costlier alternative.
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.