Sustainability is a term that applies to many aspects of the world and is usually viewed regarding the economy, society, and the natural environment. There is considerable overlap between these elements of sustainability, but this guide focuses on the relationship between products and the sustainability of the natural environment. In simple terms, Environmental Sustainability could be defined as the preservation of the natural world in a state equivalent to or better than at present.
Damage may occur, but there must be no net damage when considered on a long-term basis. Effectively, Sustainability is the ability to sustain a particular state of affairs. In this case, it is the ability to sustain the quality of the natural environment. Sustainability can be considered regarding the local environment as industries and consumers impact on the areas directly around them, but it should also be considered on a world level.
This means finding not just the developed world, but also developing countries. These countries will have an increasingly large impact on the world environment, and if sustainability is to be achieved, then it needs to allow for everybody to create an equal impact on the world.
This means that developed countries will have to make very large improvements if the natural environment is to be sustained indefinitely.
However, the concept of sustainability could be considered to conflict with mankind’s constant ambition for “progression.” It is for this reason that sustainability is often referred to as Sustainable Development, defined by the Brundtland Commission as:
“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The natural environment is an incredibly resilient system that can absorb a large amount of abuse, but current levels of consumption, destruction, and pollution cannot be sustained without causing significant permanent damage to the environment.
Such damage is not only bad for nature, but also for humans who despite modern technology, live inescapably in the natural environment. Therefore, the aim of sustainable product design is to create products that serve their required function but have an environmental impact that is a level and type that can be effectively absorbed by the environment, thus avoiding long-term environmental damage and degradation.
Ideally, products would be designed to be environmentally benign, using only renewable materials and energy, being safe to humans, animals, and the wider environment, with a comprehensive disposal system in place and the entire lifecycle monitored and managed responsibly.
This is, however, beyond the requirements of sustainable product design, which aims only to reduce damage to a level that will not accumulate over time.
However, to design products to be environmentally sustainable, the designer must have a means of measuring the sustainability of the product. This is an extremely complex and subjective task, and so in practical terms, it is best that designers aim to meet simplified criteria such as that set out . A product should be designed to be Cyclic, Solar, Safe and Efficient according to the definitions set out below.
Products should exist in a closed loop cycle, either natural or manmade. A product could be produced from renewable material and be either recycled or composted at the end of its natural life, or it could be made from non-renewable recycled materials which are themselves recycled at the end of the products life. This will ideally go as far as using materials in a way that they never require disposal as such, but can be indefinitely reused in high-quality applications or can be composted and used to fertilize the soil.
Products should consume only renewable sources of energy throughout their lifecycles, including manufacture, use, and disposal. This energy is referred to as solar because all forms of renewable energy ultimately come from the Sun.
A product should not contain or emit any substances that are harmful to the natural environment or human beings, and should not cause the emission of harmful substances during manufacture or disposal.
Products should use resources sparingly in their manufacture, use and disposal. No matter where the resources come from, the designer should aim to reduce the total resource consumption of the product to 10% of an equivalent product in 1990. This is an essential element of sustainable design because the simplest way to reduce environmental impacts is to use less simply.
It could easily be argued that this measurement of the sustainability of products goes beyond the minimum requirements for Sustainability, but it is a reliable and straightforward definition that although difficult to achieve in the short term, is a good long-term target to set.
Many people worry that pursuing sustainable design is in contradiction to the development of society and economies, but careful consideration of the definition reveals that it is not only intended to protect long-term interests but is essential to protecting long-term interests.
Designing products that are truly sustainable is a tough task and do require significant changes in attitudes and lifestyles in many cases, but it can be achieved where there is a will to do so.