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Published: 5 June 2024
Contributors: Julie Rogers, Alice Gomstyn, Alexandra Jonker

What is sustainable design?

Sustainable design is the idea that sustainability should be built into the design phase of products, services and buildings. The objective is to reduce waste and improve the health and well-being of society.

Also called green design, environmentally conscious design or eco-design, sustainable design is intended to deliver long-term design solutions that reduce negative social and environmental impacts. A key driver of sustainable design is the sense of urgency in society to take action against accelerating climate change and protect the natural environment for future generations. The concept often involves three components: reduce, reuse and recycle.

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What are the three components of sustainable design?

The three components of sustainable design are reduce, reuse and recycle.

  • Reduce: Sustainable designs reduce the amount of new material and energy consumption required for production.

  • Reuse: A reusable product or material is designed to be used again or repurposed into something else.

  • Recycle: At the end of its lifecycle, a recyclable product or material can be turned into a new product or biodegrade.
Why is sustainable design important?

Rising societal interest in mitigating the effects of climate change on Earth and its ecology has made environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors increasingly important to shareholders and stakeholders in a variety of organizations.

For organizations, achieving ESG goals often includes initiatives to reduce the negative impacts of the business on the environment and society. Embedding sustainability into the design phase of products, services and buildings can improve energy efficiency, elevate quality of life for inhabitants and community members and reduce waste and pollution—including carbon emissions.

Lowering carbon emissions and meeting other ESG criteria—such as achieving net-zero emissions—also help align organizations with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). Achieving these goals can improve living conditions and meet human needs without compromising the planet.

What are the benefits of sustainable building design?

The design of sustainable buildings is called sustainable architecture. The objective of sustainable architecture is to minimize a building’s negative impact on ecosystems or natural resources. Sustainable architecture approaches consider the production of building components, the construction process and what resources might be required throughout the lifecycle of the building, like heating and electricity use.

For example, to reduce the collective environmental impact, building teams can leverage renewable energy or use sustainable materials, while the building plans can optimize for energy efficiency and conserving water. Sustainable architecture requires collaboration among the entire building team, including designers, architects, engineers and the future inhabitants. The Sustainable Design Checklist, available through the U.S. General Services Administration website, can help teams track new construction or renovation projects’ compliance with the 2020 Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings.1

Another factor of sustainable architecture centers on creating a productive environment. This includes location selection: even if a building is designed with an overall smaller footprint, if it is located in an area far from workplaces and services, the pollution caused by people traveling back and forth are a direct result of that building’s design. A productive environment also ensures indoor environmental quality, meaning an emphasis on indoor air quality, acoustics, natural lighting and thermal conditions for a comfortable and healthy indoor space.

What are the benefits of sustainable product design?

Product design determines 80% of a product’s lifetime emissions.2 Sustainable design practices embed sustainability into the entire product life cycle, from planning to disassembly and the end-of-life stage. Sustainable product design also keeps materials in a value flow, which is otherwise known as the circular economy.

Design

A sustainably made product is constructed from low-impact components, which are non-toxic, made from recycled materials or otherwise produced in an environmentally friendly way. In addition to these environmental benefits, the reduced use of materials and energy efficiency associated with the use of low-impact components results in cost savings.

Production

During manufacturing, the product is made using renewable energy or energy-efficient processes. This helps lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce resource depletion and minimize pollution throughout the product’s life.

Distribution

When the product is ready for delivery, efficient packaging and supply chain logistics strategies minimize transportation emissions and costs. Using lighter packaging, for example, reduces fuel consumption.

Disposal

At the end of a product’s life, the product is easy to reuse or recycle. Multicomponent products are made while avoiding material diversity—meaning made of different kinds of materials—to better promote disassembly and recycling. For instance, a plastic water bottle with a label that is made from the same type of plastic is easier to recycle than a plastic bottle with a paper label. This can help a company meet or exceed environmental regulations, avoid fines, save on disposal costs and leverage potential subsidies and environmental incentives.

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, reusing, repairing and recycling materials for as long as possible. By extending the entire lifecycle of products, it promotes sustainability, reduces waste and minimizes carbon emissions.

The model is defined in contrast with the traditional linear economy, where raw materials are extracted from the natural environment and turned into products. The linear economy is unsustainable because it is based on planned obsolescence, which means a product is designed to have a limited lifespan to encourage consumers to buy it again. The circular economy model has increasingly been the subject of government, academia and business case studies demonstrating ways to increase sustainable consumption and combat global warming.

What is product stewardship?

In a linear design system, producers are not involved in the end-to-end product life cycle and do not take responsibility for products or packaging after sale. Product stewardship puts sustainability at the center of the design process. In this system, producers consider the entire product lifecycle, throughout production, use and disposal.

Product stewardship can be done voluntarily, where companies work to circularize production, like through a product-service systems (PSS) model. A PSS model fulfills customer needs by fulfilling a product and a service together—such as bike or car sharing. Because a PSS model is a cohesive mix of products and services, it incentivizes companies to design products that are long-lasting and durable. Product stewardship can also be encouraged through government policy. For example, the European Union (EU) incentivizes better product design through the Ecodesign Directive (Directive 2009/125/EC), a framework for sustainable products regulation.

What are some sustainable design strategies?

There are several ways companies can follow sustainable design principles:

  • Reduce materials: Technology applications and services can reduce the amount of material, energy use or fossil fuels needed during production.
  • Implement modular design: Subdividing complex processes into simple modules can make the design process more efficient.
  • Design for longevity: Integrating business knowledge, market conditions, company capabilities and technical possibilities into design concepts can extend the durability and usefulness of products.
  • Invest in simulation: Computer-generated models and simulated environments can be used to test parts and assembly methods before production begins.
  • Design for recycling: Manufacturers and designers can consider the end of a product’s life during the design stage and development.
What are sustainable design certifications?

There are several standards and rating systems for sustainable design. Some evaluation systems are used to rate landscape architecture, interior design or products, like Energy Star or C2C Certified (Cradle-to-Cradle). There are also green building certifications, which are generally awarded on the basis of design choices and manufacturing in built environments.

The Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification is the world’s most widely used green building program. A LEED certification is the recognition that a building or community has met certain standard for sustainable design and energy efficiency. Sustainable buildings that meet LEED standards produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, use less energy and renewable resources, typically have lower operational costs and provide a higher quality of life for inhabitants.

Some certifications or ratings systems are self-awarded, or the exact requirements necessary to meet the standards are not readily available to consumers. This can sometimes lead to greenwashing, which is the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental impact or carbon footprint of a product.

Examples of sustainable design

Many companies are integrating sustainable design into their business practices:

Apple

Apple has pledged that every one of its products will be carbon neutral by 2030. To achieve this, the company is focused on the three biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions: electricity, materials and transportation. In 2023, Apple released the new carbon-neutral Apple Watch.2 The new model uses entirely fiber-based packaging, is made from 30% recycled or renewable material and is produced using 100% clean energy.

 

Delta

Sustainable design was at the forefront of the in-depth redesign of Delta’s Terminal C at LaGuardia Airport in New York. The terminal features LED lighting, exterior glass that automatically tints based on the time of day and charging for electric ground support equipment. These and other design aspects will qualify the terminal for LEED certification, according to the airline.3

Patagonia

Retailer Patagonia promotes the durability of its products. In addition to sharing information about its facilities and suppliers, the company is focused on increasing its use of preferred materials, like organic and regenerative organic cotton, hemp and recycled nylon. Between 1996 and 2024, it has increased its use of preferred materials from 43% to 90%.4 It also offers repair services to extend the life of its clothing, reducing the need for new garments and minimizing textile waste.  

 

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Resources What is LEED certification?

LEED certification is the recognition that a building or community has met certain standards for sustainable design and energy efficiency.

What is a circular economy?

The circular economy is an economic model that aims to eliminate waste and promote sustainability through reuse and resource efficiency.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is the long-term ambition for people to coexist on Earth without depleting its natural resources.

What is sustainable technology?

Sustainable technology describes technology created or applied in consideration of environmental, social and economic factors.

Sustainability begins with design

If you want to make sustainable products today, dabbling at the edges no longer suffices. You must start at the design phase.

What is ESG?

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) refers to a set of standards used to measure an organization’s environmental and social impact.

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Footnotes

 “Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings.” (link resides outside of ibm.com). Sustainable Facilities Tool.

2 “Apple unveils its first carbon neutral products.” (link resides outside of ibm.com). Apple Newsroom. 12 September 2023.

Media Kit and Fact Sheet: Delta’s LaGuardia Investment.” (link resides outside of ibm.com). Delta News Hub.

Our Environmental Responsibility Programs.” (link resides outside of ibm.com). Patagonia.