Sustainable Product Design – The 4 Pillars for a ‘Better’ Product

With rising awareness on climate change, and the negative implications of globalization among the general public, customers are increasingly seeking to make better decisions about their consumables. As they rely on companies to provide products that reflect better choices companies must step up and provide them with better products that make it easier to align values with actions.  

Between 2013 and 2018 50% of CPG (consumer packaged goods) growth came from products that were labeled as ‘sustainable’. While that development provides a big opportunity for companies to fulfil a growing demand for better products it also poses challenges – what is a “better” product and what should you consider in the sustainable product design process?

Chart showing that 50% CPG growth is attributed to 'sustainable' products

What Makes a Product ‘Better’?

Defining what makes a product ‘better’, and therefore more sustainable, is tricky as there is no one definition of sustainability. Generally, we are talking about an orientation towards sustaining something long-term. There are different definitions and frameworks on what sustainability means. We have picked one all-encompassing framework that will provide you with numerous ideas on how to design your product ‘better’. 

One holistic framework is the “4 pillars of sustainability”. It considers all possible aspects of designing a sustainable product. As we start off our “Better Products” blog series we are going to dive deeper into each pillar in the upcoming weeks and give you plenty of inspiration on what positive changes you can make towards building a better product. 

Pillar #1: Better for the Customer – Human Sustainability 

As your customer should be your #1 priority at any time it makes sense to think about human sustainability first – what contributes to the long-term preservation of a human life? 

With consumables, ingredients should be one of your main considerations. While cheap ingredients add economic benefit to a company and additives & preservatives serve aspects of taste, experience and convenience, they are often counterproductive to the customers’ health and therefore their sustainability. 

Aspects to consider when designing a product for human sustainability are:  

  • Degree of product naturalness – How close is your product to a homemade one and how many ‘unnatural’ ingredients or preserving methods did you have to use? Is there a way you can move the product towards being more natural?
  • Quality of ingredients – Are you using the most adequate quality of ingredients? Things to consider here are nutrient density by using organic ingredients and food safety by making sure the proper quality certifications are met. 
  • Effects on human systems – How does your product impact your customers’ health? Is there anything you could do to improve the effect by adding ingredients or reducing ingredients? 

Pillar #2: Better for the Environment – Environmental Sustainability 

Everything we do leaves a footprint on the environment. Preserving or even enriching the natural world should nowadays be every company’s aim when designing a ‘better’ product. 

Packaging has been the main sustainability focus in recent years and is an obvious opportunity when improving for environmental sustainability but what about the impact of your product and its ingredients themselves

  • Footprint of your ingredients – There is a big difference in resource intensity between different foods. Popular examples of intense resource use are beef and almonds. Have you considered designing your product with less resource-intensive ingredients or even specifically building an alternative to a popular product with a smaller footprint?
  • Packaging – This is a big one as the packaging will be left after your product is consumed and potentially impact the environment for many years. There is a growing choice of more sustainable packaging alternatives to consider and maybe designing a packaging for reusage is a possibility for your product as well. 
  • Waste – The highest environmental impact stems from products that are produced with high resources but never consumed and completely wasted, most commonly food that is thrown out because it expired. Can you think of ways to reduce your waste, not only in your own supply chain but also in end consumption?

Pillar #3: Better for the Community – Social Sustainability 

Building a product impacts a lot of people and communities, sometimes in ways we are unaware of when first starting to design the product. Our globalized world provides a lot of opportunities but also challenges that should be considered when designing a ‘better’ product. 

From the community of your sourced ingredients to the community of your production facility and finally the community of your customers, there are lots of possibilities to make a positive impact. 

Ways to think about a ‘better’ product from a social aspect: 

  • Enriching local communities – Look around the community you are serving and how you can grow and enrich them. Are there ways to use closely located suppliers, distributers, etc. to build strong local communities? 
  • Respecting & preserving the communities that you’re involving yourself with – Especially when sourcing from other countries you should think about the culture and needs of the communities there and how you can contribute to sustaining them. Maybe there are even ways you can use their cultures to give your product a unique edge.

Pillar #4: Better for the Economy – Economic Sustainability 

Let’s be honest – our world is currently not built to reward long term orientation so when you design a ‘better’ product you will likely realize that your costs are higher than that of mass market competitors. Lower margins make it hard for companies with ‘better’ products to start and even harder to survive. 

Because of that dynamic it’s important to keep in mind that sustainability also encompasses ‘economic’ sustainability, not only for all partners you’re involved with but also for your own company. 

Here are aspects to consider: 

  • Stability of growth – How can you set up your product’s economics in a way that allow for the stable, long-term survival and growth of your company? 
  • Price premiums – A ‘better’ product is worth more because it provides more value to customers and the world. Therefore, price premiums should be charged, and the right customer will be willing to pay for it. 
  • Economic sustainability for your partners – From suppliers to distributors; a sustainable product should be designed in a way that contributes to economic sustainability for everyone instead of making it more of a challenge.

Key Takeaways 

There are many aspects to consider when embarking on the journey of designing a ‘better’ product. In this article we outlined what we consider to be 4 key pillars: 

  • Better for the customer 
  • Better for the community 
  • Better for the environment 
  • Better for the economy 

Considering all four pillars of sustainability may seem like an impossible challenge especially if you’re just starting out as a new company so let’s leave you with a word of encouragement.  

The most important thing is to keep the mindset of aiming for a ‘better’ product. Take the first step and design your product only marginally more sustainable than the alternatives and keep striving for progress as your company and the product evolves.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sustainable Product Design

What are examples of popular brands with a sustainable approach?

Patagonia – Apparel

California-based outdoor wear company Patagonia is one of the pioneers of sustainable practices. They use recycled or organically grown materials for their products, emphasize long term usage of their clothes including free repairs and have contributed a substantial part of their revenues to conservation efforts for the past 35 years – all while building the company into one of the most popular outdoor gear companies on the market. 

New Belgium Brewing – Beverages

A certified B Corp, New Belgium Brewing has committed to becoming a carbon-neutral company by 2030. Apart from innovative management practices they produce their own electricity, engage in clean water practices and fight for social justice.

Tony’s Chocoloney – Chocolate

Dutch chocolate manufacturer Tony’s Chocoloney is on a mission to change the whole cocoa industry by sourcing cocoa beans that are fully traceable, paying a fair price premium, making long-term commitments with farms and supporting cooperatives with knowledge.

What are the advantages for my business when creating sustainable products?

  • First and foremost you get to stick to your values and create something that doesn’t take from the planet as much as other products do.
  • You might gain access to a different target audience that highly cares about sustainability. 
  • Sustainability practices are a competitive advantage you can use to differentiate from your competitors. 
  • Platforms that have committed to sustainability as well might support your products more than non-sustainable ones.

  —> Amazon recently launched their ‘Climate Pledge Friendly’ program. Find all details on the program and how it might help your sales in our article here.

Are there any downsides to creating sustainable products?

  • Sustainable product creation and manufacturing often comes with higher cost that will either decrease your margins or will lead to a higher price point. This might scare off your old customers and narrow your target audience.
  • You might have to spend more time up front when researching for suppliers, production methods, packaging materials, etc. since mass market options are often not sustainable 
  • The definition of sustainability has changed already in the past and it might continue to do so. Practices that were considered sustainable in the past might not receive that label in the future and will have to be adapted.

Can I count on institutional support when committing to creating sustainable products?

Depending on the region you’re in you have access to sustainability-oriented government funding. There are also multiple investors focusing on sustainable companies so it might make sense to explore that option as well. 

    —> For the EU: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecoap/about-action-plan/union-funding-programmes_en 

    —> For the US: EPA (environmental protection agency) https://www.epa.gov/grants/specific-epa-grant-programs 

I want to design/redesign my products for sustainability – where do I start?

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