Advice for companies looking to create sustainable products

Our advice for companies looking to make more sustainable decisions in a world fast running out of resources.
December 7, 2020

Sustainability. Nowadays it is at the very centre of debate around ethical product design. Whether it’s a rising demand from customers for more sustainable options, or pressure on companies to take their impact on the world seriously, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s happening. However there are so many unsubstantiated claims by brands about their environmental sustainability that its difficult to know what will genuinely makes a difference. We’ve taken a combined 25 years of knowledge and recycled it, reshaped it into some key pieces of advice:

1. Do your material research.

A physical product is just that – physical and made from stuff. Choose more sustainable stuff and you have a more sustainable product. In theory. Bioplastic is the current buzz-word. PLA, corn starch plastic, plantbased plastic - call it what you will, but essentially it is still plastic and takes hundreds of years to break down like plastic. Whilst the raw material is renewable and can be manufactured anywhere with enough land and water, the diversion of edible corn into the plastic industry is questionable in a world with a major food-shortage

The major ‘selling point’ of bioplastics is that they are compostable. However industrial composting is usually necessary to heat the bioplastic to a high enough temperature that allows microbes to break it down so home composting won’t work. And not being widely recyclable that leaves no option but the general waste.

Choosing the right material isn’t easy. Each option needs to be measured against each other for a specific context of use. But getting your facts right with a little desk research will do a lot to quash any false assumptions.

“Bioplastic is the current buzz-word. PLA, corn starch plastic, plantbased plastic - call it what you will, but essentially it is still plastic and takes hundreds of years to break down like plastic.”

2. Don’t base your company on bold claims.

David Attenborough has opened our eyes to the disastrous effects of plastic pollution and kickstarted a major push towards zero-plastic. In the past year there has been a flood of companies setting out to make everything plastic free.

The Zero Plastic Toothbrush would be a sales gold mine. Unfortunately toothbrush bristles can currently only be made from plastic. (Unless you fancy putting pig hair in your mouth) and an ‘almost’ zero plastic toothbrush doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Zero really has to mean zero. No plastic in the supply chain, no plastic packaging, no plastic components. Be careful about pitching claims like these to investors before checking them out properly.

3. Focus on user experience.

Globally consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products, but they aren’t willing to compromise on experience. The good news is, they don’t have to.

Furniture designers and manufacturers Vitsoe use reusable packaging bags that are returned after delivery to be used again and again, unburdening the recipient of the need to dispose of stacks of cardboard in the process. That’s a win, win, and just one example of a company doing it right and improving the customer experience at the same time.

4. Educate consumers.

Sustainability might seem like a luxury in business, but it’s a necessity if we are to continue producing and consuming products in the next 100 years. In the UK, we have become so far removed from manufacturing that we can all too easily ignore how our material goods are made.

The true costs of a £3 white Primark T-shirt is kept quiet from consumers. But the costs are there. Poor working conditions, under-paid workers, pesticides, water pollution, poor quality garments. And the price of fixing these things? Fairtrade and organic fashion brand Know The Origin have worked it out; their white T-shirts sell for £22 with no hidden costs on the planet.

Of course, when it comes to complex products, being able to track these factors is almost impossible and increasingly expensive. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If we all start questioning the ethics of our suppliers rather than turning a blind eye, our collective voices will be heard.

Dame are the world’s first climate positive period brand, on a mission to eradicate all period plastic.

5. Don’t compromise.

Making good decisions doesn’t just stop at the product itself. Packaging, logistics, marketing all have an environmental impact that can be reduced. Instead of handing out single-use-plastic merchandise outside Liverpool St station (after all who needs another pen, lanyard, cap, water bottle or T-shirt in their life?), use these moments as opportunities for sustainable design innovation and you will stand out from the crowd for the right reasons.

It’s time for consumers to take more responsibility for the effects their choices have on the environment, and up to producers to provide them with the options and education to make these choices better.


Jo Barnard