Is Product Design Inherently Unsustainable?

On 25 November 2011, Patagonia published this advert in the New York Times. It discusses the paradox facing the self-proclaimed ‘activist company’: how can you be environmentally sustainable while remaining in business?

As a clothing company, Patagonia makes money by selling products. Any product must justify its existence, and this goes double for clothes. So often clothes are bought for fast fashion; the clothes address user wants, not user needs. This is a big problem. It’s not hard to find shocking statistics about the impacts of manufacturing clothes. Manufacturing 1kg of fabric generates 23kg of greenhouse gases. 85% of textiles end up in landfills each year. Clothing manufacture is closely linked to labour, gender, and poverty issues.

The solution is that familiar mantra:

reduce, reuse, recycle.

This is something Patagonia really cares about. This is apparent just by looking at their website or the labels of any of their garments.

The label on my Patagonia P-6 Uprisal Crew Sweatshirt

It seems like they minimise the impact of manufacture as much as possible, despite the costs associated with this. Patagonia clothes are certainly expensive; their 100% recycled graphic t-shirt costs £40… and that’s just the short sleeve version! However, it appears that people are willing to accept this.

In the past decade there has been a huge rise in mission-led businesses. That is, companies set themselves more objectives than just ‘make money’. A part of this is down to the younger generation caring more about big issues. Studies show that millennials are increasingly looking to work for companies with a clear purpose.

But recycling is only one piece of the puzzle. And you’ll notice from the mantra, it is the smallest piece. What’s far more important is that users reduce their consumption and stick to what they already own. This is where Patagonia separates themselves from the pack. By telling their customers ‘don’t buy this jacket’, they are proclaiming their awareness of their hand in the climate crisis, and saying they care more about their company mission than any hit to their wallet. They follow through with this statement too. Their Ironclad Guarantee ensures that Patagonia will accept returns of unwanted products after any timespan and offer repairs on all products regardless of what caused the damage. As much as Patagonia would happily take your money for a repair job, they always encourage you to attempt self-repair first, as this reduces transport emissions. Their website is strewn with DIY repair videos for every type of product they sell. This is the kind of service that prevents clothes from ending up in the trash. I do believe that integrating service design into the clothing industry is critical to reducing its impact on the environment. In other words, you can’t have a circular economy without services.

I was unaware of Patagonia’s eco credentials for a long time and I saw them in the same light as any other massive outdoor company. It was only later that I realised they are more eco-friendly than even the most radical start-ups. This makes me happy because this is how it should be; every company should be this good without you needing to know about it.

But enough about Patagonia, the title of this blog is a much broader question: is product design inherently unsustainable? I have no doubt that product designers are responsible for a whole lot of crappy products that waste everyone’s time. We can strive to reduce our consumption, we can almost always reuse our existing products, and we are getting ever better at recycling. But will it ever be enough? Does a fully circular economy have room for constant product iteration? For product designers? Lets define product design as what Stuart Bailey would call ‘pure product design’ – no services attached, just physical things sold for a fixed price. One approach would be to stop designing new things altogether: what I’m calling the Dieter Rams approach.

As we saw in the Rams documentary, in the 70s he shifted from iterating and improving products to sticking with the same design for decades. Vitsœ currently sells three products: a chair, a table, and a shelving system; all designed by Rams in the early 60s. It takes an immense amount of restraint to keep things the same, especially for designers. We are employed to design things, right? It’s one thing for Rams to throw his hands up and say he’s going to stop designing, but it’s a much bigger ask for a design graduate to give up their livelihood. I think we as designers always going to be biased towards making more things.

That might not be a bad thing though; I think there is room for new products in a circular economy. If a new version of a product has a more efficient manufacturing process than the last, then that’s a step towards a circular economy. If the designer recognises that they might be introducing compatibility issues with older products, but believes the pros outweigh the cons, then it’s probably fine. Imagine Patagonia released a new, more eco-friendly jacket, but it was made using a new material with a new manufacturing process. Now the repairs service is going to have to stock more materials and machinery. Is it worth it? It could be. This is the sort of tightrope that designers must walk in a circular economy.

So no, upon reflection I don’t think product design is inherently unsustainable. I just think we might have inherent biases that skew our attitude towards sustainable design, and it would be wise to be mindful of them.


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