Sustainable Design

Designers influence every aspect of our lives. They decide the materials we use to build, furnish and warm our homes, clothe ourselves, travel and communicate with each other. They have the power to choose whether the materials we use are more or less sustainable. Whether to use sustainable design to work towards a circular economy or to encourage fast fashion, fast furniture and a throw away culture. A trend we cannot afford to continue if we want to avoid handing our children a planet more polluted, damaged and exhausted than today.

Sustainable design step 1, worms eye view of trees

LCA’s must be at the fingertips of every designer from the beginning of the creative process till the end product reaches it’s point of obsolescence.

But what is sustainable design? Does it mean not using plastic, or using recycled material? Should materials only be sourced locally, or should the way the materials are transported and manufactured be prioritised? In reality, sustainable design is all these things and more. It means considering the whole life cycle of the product, the materials used, the manufacturing processes, the lifetime in use and the reuse or disposal. All these aspects need to be quantified to understand the impact a certain product will have on the environment.

One way to achieve this is by conducting a formal life cycle assessment (LCA) to generate quantitative data on environmental impacts by drawing on huge databases of material and energy flows. LCA is an invaluable tool to estimate the impact of every stage of a products life cycle 1, whilst also removing our own preconceptions and assumptions about what is more sustainable.

Sustainable design step 2, logs in a timber yard

Changing priorities do not pause a changing environment

LCAs could go a long way to making designers aware of the environmental impact of their product, and how it can be made sustainable. Presently however, LCAs are not a standard assessment and can be expensive, time consuming and even meaningless if not done in accordance with ISO standards. Methods are being developed to combat this, but to really make an impact LCA’s must be at the fingertips of every designer from the beginning of the creative process.

Sustainable design step 3, aerial view of planks in a timber yard

Now, more than ever, we must push for sustainable solutions even as the current COVID-19 pandemic and looming economic downturn turn peoples priorities away from the environment and delay development of sustainable alternatives 2. But make no mistake, changing priorities do not pause a changing environment. It is imperative that we make the move away from unsustainable materials if we are to become a sustainable, circular economy and society.

Sustainable design step 4, pile of carved wooden slabs next to an upright wooden slab

As one of the only traditional materials to be inherently sustainable, wood has the potential to be a big part of the solution. However, if wood is to be used, it must come from sustainable sources (read more about what makes wood truly sustainable in our article). This is much more of a challenge than it first appears, especially if the species is coming from a country/region where environmental regulations are not enforced. In these circumstances certification was often touted as sufficient to ensure sustainable forest management. Yet now, numerous exposes have alleged that certification bodies, such as FSC34 and PEFC56, are failing to ensure this in some supply chains.

Certification is also expensive and often inaccessible to forests managed by smaller non-industrial owners, communities, and indigenous groups, despite these being inherently more sustainable than the large state and industrial operations that dominate certified forest area in most parts of the world.

They should be questioned as to the other methods they are using to ensure due diligence

Sustainable design step 5, plywood chairs arranged in rows

So how should designers, manufacturers and consumers go about finding sustainable wood suppliers? For designers and manufacturers, it is important to build a dialogue with a trusted supplier. If the only assurance given is certification, they should be questioned on the wider environmental policy and the other methods used to ensure due diligence and compliance with laws like the EU Timber Regulation, US Lacey Act, and Japan Clean Wood Act. Ask about their engagement in efforts to develop Timber Legality Assurance Systems or the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG) initiatives, now operating in many supply regions of the world.

Care must also be taken when choosing species and grades of wood. As all to often, designers request the highest grade of timber, without realising forests produce very little of this. There is also a tendency to choose the same species over and over again. For example, there is such a strong preference for oak in European furniture products that pressure is mounting on the forest resource, whilst other, much more readily available species are overlooked and remain under-utilised. Designers and manufacturers need to be sympathetic to the forest, choosing under-used species and incorporating lower grades of wood into designs.

For consumers, see if the company has a procurement policy outlining how they ensure their products are from known sustainable sources. Make a point of questioning retailers on the sources and environmental impacts of the materials and suppliers they are using. Retailers that genuinely care about their impact on the environment should know the answers. Another option is to buy second hand to maximise the lifespan of a wood product and help ensure the carbon remains locked in the product for longer.

  1. Oliver, R., 2017, ‘Telling the Whole Story: The Environmental Life cycle of American Hardwoods’, American Hardwood Export Council [Online][]
  2. Block, J., 2020, ‘Designers “deeply worried” as pandemic slows move away from single-use plastics’, Dezeen, 19 June [Online] []
  3. Earthsight, 2020, ‘Flatpacked Forests’, Earthsight, 23 June [Online][]
  4. Conniff, R., 2018, ‘Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification has Failed’, Yale Environment 360, 20 February [Online][]
  5. Environmental Investigation Agency, 2017, ‘PEFC: A Fig Leaf for Stolen Timber’, Environmental Investigation Agency, 5 June [Online][]
  6. Earthsight, 2017, ‘Choice Cuts: how European & US BBQs are fuelled by a hidden deforestation crisis in South America’, Earthsight, 5 July [Online][]