How to design sustainable tech products

What are the key design methods we should implement within our practice of design around tech-products to enable a more sustainable future?
September 8, 2021

As tech-based products become more entwined within our day-to-day lives there is a growing need to reassess the way we design and manufacture them.

The utilisation of tech-products brings positive impacts and advancements within healthcare, education, communication, safety, precision and speed and we have come to rely on them heavily in almost all industries.

However this reliance causes us to overlook the question of how sustainable and well managed these products are for end-of-product-life. In 2019 it was reported that globally we created 53.6 million MT of E-waste, annually, which was an increase of 21% from the last five years.

This piece evaluates different design sustainability opportunities for tech-products and looks at a few non-tech products for inspiration. Ultimately questioning how we can design better to enable tech-products to be as sustainable as possible, alleviating some of the problems found now and making better design decisions for the future.

The sharing economy

The Sharing economy is an economy built around taking away the entirety of product life ownership, instead, giving you access to the product only when you need it. Think of Uber, Lime bike or a Zip car.  Most likely, you would not have even thought of them as being part of the sharing economy, or given thought to who else uses them, as their convenience overrules any other thought.

There are multiple positives for utilising this type of economy, saving costs on upkeep, automatic access to the latest upgrade or newest addition, higher efficiency, space saving in homes, and most importantly it allows people access to products and services they might not have had access to before.

However, within tech products sometimes there is a certain ‘need’ and security in having full ownership. For example a phone, laptop and fridge are either full of personal information or very impractical to share with others. Nonetheless there is the question of if we still need to own all of the product. Perhaps a modular approach or designing-in share-ability would enable a best of both worlds scenario.

A very well known sharing economy service is the laundrette, with the first one reported to be opened in 1934, Texas. Once a traditional site on the high street, however, the service is on the decline due to rising repair costs and is currently recorded to be used by as few as 3,000 people across the UK. As our lives are moving at a faster pace, expectations of what we can achieve, or should achieve in a day do not fit around waiting for our clothes to wash. Ease of use and convenience is key in today's market.

So instead we happily sacrifice space in our homes for our own washing machines, and for the most part they sit unused. “97% of households own a washing machine, and 62% of households own a tumble dryer “, it is also reported that the 2.1 million washing machines in the UK are over 10 years old and therefore likely to have poor energy ratings. If we could reverse this move away from a sharing economy we can make significant energy and CO2e emission reductions both in manufacture and lifetime usage.

Rinse, a sharing economy platform which picks up and drops off your laundry pushes the ideas of how products can be designed to be part of a sharing economy; ultimately pushing consumers towards a more sustainable lifestyle without compromise on convenience.

Maybe there is some inspiration we can take from another sharing service within children and baby clothing. Similarly to the laundrettes, this is not a new phenomenon. Having hand-me-downs, from siblings or friends was, at least for myself, part of childhood. It brought excitement over what was going to be delivered, coolness (depending on who had passed them on) and the unknown was great.

A product which is outgrown within months or weeks, can be rented for the exact time needed. Saving money, ensuring ease of use and saving time, as clothes are posted directly through the door. Companies such as Bundlee and My wardrobe kids are examples of how a product so intimate, with high-use can work within a short use time-frame and alongside the sharing economy. There is a lot to learn and take as reference from the clothing and fashion rental market, which could translate into the way we see and use tech-products.

Design for repair

Designing for repair is crucial if we are to enable a product to have a level of real sustainable credentials, as it caters for both maintenance and upgrade. It requires both a strong understanding of the product, the users and the surrounding problems, including designing with readily available tools and creating replacement components if needed. Care and attention to how the product will be assembled, consideration over what materials, and understanding how the product will be used is key to achieving a real-life up-take of repairing tech-products.

Typically when designing tech-products we design to enclose, to ensure parts are kept dry, stay in place, are well ventilated and out of the reach of dust. This is often done through soldering, welding and irreversible snap fixings. These methods are not designed to be opened, for repair or re-use. And so by default, we are designing products that are concealed, never to be opened.

The printer, Rank Xerox, showcases how a product can be sold with full product ownership, yet still be designed for repair, disassembly, material recapturing, and, when parts are no longer usable, recycling. The printer is sold with an ongoing relationship between product owner and manufacturer of the product.

Facilitating repairs can also be seen in the Nexus washing machine from Electrolux. The product is designed as a modular system, breaking down into homogeneous materials.  Enabling singular part replacement. The key method behind this came from the method of construction and material choice.

Similarly to the Ranx Xerox the Bang & Olufsen, Beo sound level is designed for repair, and fully future proofed.

What we wanted to do in the early phase of the design process was to understand what was actually determining the lifecycle of an audio product,” Kogsgaard Hansen says. “We have sort of carried that [idea] through with a relentless focus on clarity in the design”.

This clarity in design is shown through understanding the key uses, then stripping back the design to enable modularity of parts. The use of everyday screws gives more real opportunities for the user to engage within the repair model, to prolong the product's life. Likewise the modularity also caters for personal updates, such as swapping over the front face to give a refresh, allowing the speaker to change with the user's taste.

A different approach to the long lasting materials is the Recompute computer, a computer housed in corrugated cardboard. There are some questionable aspects, such as overheating, nonetheless, as a concept for re-designing and re-thinking what we actually need, the Recomputer questions expectations and assumptions on materials we choose to use for now and for end-of-product-life.

Design for upgrades

Designing for upgrades, and adaptability is a method which can future proof a product. It allows for a prolonged use, as upgrading and add ons are considered and designed for. This not only prolongs the products life, it also prolongs the material lifespan. Both software and hardware need to be designed for upgrades, to create products which can transition smoothly to new available technology.

A great example of designing for upgrading can be seen in the Mentis computer. Built from three core components all being modular allows for the interchangeability of each one. This method of swapping, reconnection and disconnection of parts is crucial to designing for upgrading and future proofing a product.

This can also be seen within the Bang & Olufsen Beo sound level speaker. Alongside designing for repair the speaker anticipates future needs, such as allowing performance space for upgrades, and an interchangeable chip, to enable the speaker to grow, rather than slow after a few years of use.  

Having that core understanding on how a product will be used, understanding the relationship of the product to the user, and the surrounding issues, such as space for new software is a huge part of designing for upgrades.

By ensuring and understanding where the use and the worth are you can design priorities around these elements. Of course there should be consideration to the fact that often we don’t know what the future will hold for our products, and there should be careful consideration as to which products this method is applied to. To ensure no over-designing or excess materials are used in the process.

Design for appropriate lifespan

Designing for appropriate lifespan is not a method often used or thought about for tech-based products. Due, in part, to the importance of the outer ‘shell’ shielding the inner components, keeping them secure, and in an environment to prolong their life. For the most part, we need products that house electronics to be reliable. But when the need of the product is only for a short time-frame, material appropriate is key to enabling a tech product to be as least wasteful as possible.

It can be argued that designing with materials which might be more prone to allowing dust, water etc to enter, is counter intuitive. However designing for longevity does not always make a product sustainable either, as at some point there is an end of product use, or want. With a mix of chemical components, virgin materials and no way to take apart, swap or disassemble, pushes only for a linear trajectory towards landfill.

Designing for appropriate lifespan is a complicated method of thinking and challenges preconception on how long we should own a product, or have a product in our lives. Designing with a time frame, similar to a cell by date, potentially could enable certain tech products towards a more regenerative, and least wasteful outcome.

One innovative example of this is the Korvaa headphones. Housed in a cellulose fungus, similar to the much used Mycelium, they showcase how a tech product can have an appropriate material lifespan, yet still be fully functional. Nevertheless, there is still the consumer responsibility of recycling all electronic parts.

The appropriate material does not have to decompose, think of an aluminium can, so long as the consumer and recycling center work, the material will be re-processed and back on a shelf in 6 weeks.

This design method links in with a circular economy, ensuring the material re-capture, whether this is a local regenerative approach or through recycling. We are still a short way off from becoming common practice for tech-products, and consideration to material choice is key.

Conclusion of thoughts

Within the field of tech-products the approach and method of designing towards sustainability has to be re-considered, and re-addressed. There are multiple different sustainable methods and strategies which can be implemented from the start of a product's life.

The recurring methods of tech-products which are aligned towards a sustainable future, are an interlink of two routes. One; Design for repair, disassembly and upgrade. Two; Design for appropriate lifespan.

Heavy consideration and understanding of the users habits, practices, location and access to tools, and knowledge should all be included in the thinking for designing around these methods.  The sharing economy works well when it has convenience at the core, designing for ease of use is centric for uptake. The heavily used children’s and baby rental clothing showcased how a product so intimate with heavy use has been adopted so smoothly within the sharing and rental economy.

There should be thoughtful, and research driven insight to give a reference as to how long the product use will be used for, to push the direction of material research and application. It should be noted in certain circumstances this can be seen as contradictory depending on product scenario and typical use.

So maybe as designers we need to take a step back and reassess our own practices of designing, and methods of thinking. To take inspiration from other design areas, to continually question the way in which we are designing, and to collectively move product and people towards a more sustainable future.


Emma Lacey

Emma is a freelance sustainability consultant and ex-Morrama designer.