Sustainable Design in the Climate Crisis

by Phil Berry, IDSA

Mar 30 2020 - 2:58pm


There has never been a time when the role of design has been more crucial to the health of the Earth’s environment and people, or more crucial to the survival of many of the species with whom we share the planet.

The 20 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.1 Science tells us we have 10 years to make dramatic changes to almost every aspect of our societies, our infrastructure and the way we behave as individuals.2, 3, 4

Despite all the buzz online, the majority of what we need to do is not about switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. High levels of climate impact are present, or embodied, in our raw materials, products, services, manufacturing processes, buildings, transportation and agricultural systems. All of those need to change rapidly.

It is not an exaggeration to say that how well we perform as designers in the next 10 years will determine what type of Earth future generations will inhabit.

Climate salvation lies in our designs

One of the presentations I make on climate change uses the En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulation Model developed by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan. It is a complex set of calculations that runs on a user-friendly dashboard. I recommend going online yourself to model climate solutions and see their impact on global temperature.5

When you do, you will find that even if we end the use of fossil fuels, maximize our use of renewable energy, electrify our transportation, implement high efficiency standards for our buildings, stop deforestation and plant new forests, we will still be short of the changes we need to make to achieve a livable climate.

After 25 years of working on climate change, I believe climate salvation lies in our designs. The goal is to not to just be less destructive, but to be restorative and regenerative. Our designs are the actions not currently accounted for in the climate solution models.

What really makes a product or system sustainable… or more sustainable?

Traditionally, we have treated products as sustainable when they exhibit one or more attributes that make the product better, or less harmful to the environment, than similar products on the market. Recycled content, design for recyclability, organic, GMO-free, bio-based, compostable, free of child labor or forced labor, fair trade, designed for circularity, dematerialization and simplicity or design for disassembly are all attributes we accept as adequate to deem a product “sustainable.”

With a decade left to create dramatic reductions in emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere, the time for simplicity is over. To be considered sustainable, a product or service must exhibit reduced climate impact.

It is not enough to only pursue recycled content or a circular design strategy to achieve sustainability. Recyclability or circular design alone do not make a product sustainable. A sustainable product can be based on attributes such as recycled content and circularity, but only if that strategy measurably reduces the totality of climate impact across the entire product lifecycle.

The unique nature of calculating climate impacts

There are similarities between climate impacts and other environmental impacts, such as waste, water use, toxic substance use, and releases of toxic substances to air and water. We know with certainty that, for every product, at least 85% of those impacts originate in the supply chain.6 Supply chain means raw materials, material logistics, product manufacturing, product logistics, product distribution and end-of-product-life, whether that is reuse, recycling or disposal. The remaining 15% of impact originates from the use of the product and the offices and operations of the companies designing the product, creating raw materials, providing the logistics, manufacturing the product and selling the product.

What differentiates climate impact from most other environmental impacts is that we can calculate it quantitatively at each stage of the product life cycle. Though the calculation will only be accurate enough to use in product marketing in those companies that have invested in measurement systems, even an estimate can be a useful tool in evaluating and comparing the climate impact of different designs, material choices and production processes.

What allows us to calculate and compare climate impact is the existence of a common measure: “kilograms of CO2 equivalent” (kg CO2e). We use the term “equivalent” to allow inclusion of other global warming gasses, such as methane, in our calculations.

With CO2e we have a measure—and so, the ability—to calculate climate impact of raw materials, production processes, logistic models, transportation options and end-of-life management methods. Once we do, we can use our measurement, even estimations, to inform our past and future design decisions.

We can express climate impact in useful terms; for example, in a calculation of 12.8 kg CO2e emitted during the production phase of a pair of denim jeans. Having this measure allows us to compare manufacturers or manufacturing processes. It allows us to find the places where potential exists to reduce climate impact. These are the places where we can create feedback loops to inform design, adjust our design strategies and evaluate the success of our actions.

Measurement methods to inform design

Product designers and developers need a method to create visibility to the CO2e in their designs. The climate impact of most products is the additive function of the CO2e in the materials plus the CO2e in the product manufacturing processes. Certainly there are other sources of climate impact for a product – such as transportation to market. But, in this case, those won’t be changed significantly, if at all, by your design iterations.

In a future article, I’ll describe the methodology I use in more detail. As a first step, identify the carbon intensity of each material you are using or considering. That can be obtained in the life-cycle inventory data of Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) software. There are good LCA programs available at no cost that contain these datasets. Different LCA software programs contain different datasets intended for different uses. You might need to look at more than one LCA program to find the material closest to what you are using.7

Once you get the number for materials, they can be used to inform your consideration of different material options for different iterations of your designs.

Climate change is a disaster in progress and the greatest design opportunity we will ever see.

Climate change is creating massive changes in ecosystems. Some of those changes are already unavoidable.4 We can certainly look at those changes as a potential apocalypse. We also could view minimizing the impacts of climate change as an enormous design challenge.

Climate change is the greatest design opportunity we will ever be presented. Every current product or service will be affected. The low-carbon products delivered to the market today represent just a start.

There will either be a low-carbon version of everything we currently buy or something entirely new that will be invented to replace it with a lower climate impact. The design and business opportunities for lower and zero carbon innovation are nearly endless.

What does all of this mean about the future of design?

Good design originates from a deep understanding of context: to define need, identify the problem and try to solve it with design. This approach hasn’t changed. What has changed is the context. The implications of climate change, including its current and future environmental, social and economic impacts, have altered the nature of the problems we need to solve.

In the current world, and its foreseeable future, there is nothing that expresses design intent more clearly than whether climate impact is being considered. This consideration opens incredible opportunities for creating iconic products with inspirational storylines.

The reason the first Tesla electric vehicle was important to reducing climate impact is only partly due to its contribution in removing fossil fuel use from transportation. Through the success of its design, it also altered reality in a dramatic way. It changed the nature of what is possible. It is a symbol of what can be done: make an iconic product, create a financially successful company and change the trajectory of an entire industry—all by addressing the climate crisis through design.

Today, we can design products with any number of positive sustainability attributes: recycled content, dematerialization, simplicity, disassembly for repairability or other forms of circularity. The validity of each attribute can be supported by the numeric reduction of their impact on the climate. Consider this a two-fer. We can prove the validity of some attribute of sustainability and get the co-benefit of being able to talk about its contribution to reducing climate impact.

A little research will reveal numerous companies pursuing some aspect of this strategy. As one example, I always suggest designers look at Renewal Workshop for inspiration on reducing climate impact through design for repairability and circularity.8 The brands they repair products for could be doing a better job of telling the climate impact story, but the business model of the Renewal Workshop is nonetheless important and inspirational.

Consider the small companies currently removing carbon from the atmosphere. They are doing so because they know it needs to be done and there will be a future market for their services. At present, they inject the carbon removed from the atmosphere underground. But what if we designed products made with carbon removed from the atmosphere? At first, maybe it will be a product colored with a black pigment derived from atmospheric carbon. At a date in the near future, I am convinced we will be removing carbon from the atmosphere to use as a raw material in creating products.

I am not alone in believing this is part of our future path to mitigating climate change. Interface Carpet, a commercial flooring company and one of the pioneers of the corporate sustainability movement, has set a goal to create their products from atmospheric carbon. It is an inspirational effort that has a clear market need in the building industry.9, 10

There are other ways product designers can create a product with carbon-negative impact. A small footwear company is using a midsole foam derived from soybeans. They have calculated that producing the midsole creates a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. It is a carbon-negative raw material. It concerns me that the soy is from Brazil, where it may be grown on land that was formerly part of the Amazon rainforest.11, 12 But it is also conceivable that a switch could be made to U.S. soy. This could also generate positive stories about the company’s role supporting small family soy farms and helping them cope with the climate change impacts they are already experiencing.13

Climate-neutral and climate-negative products exist now—not many, but a start. Most climate-neutral products achieve their status by offsetting some of their emissions. This is okay for now; though moving forward, we need to design products that truly achieve the goal of climate-neutrality or carbon-negativity.

The climate crisis is real, but I am both realistic and hopeful about this fact. Designers and developers of products and systems have an amazing opportunity to change the trajectory of the climate crisis through good design.

IDSA's virtual Sustainability Deep Dive event is June 3-5, 2020. Learn more at

About the Author

For over 25 years, Phil Berry, IDSA’s work has focused on creating more sustainable products, production processes and sustainable supply chains. During his career Phil has served as Director of Sustainability for two large multi-national companies. In 2005, Phil was part of the Nike Footwear product creation team that won the IDEA Gold Award for the company’s first product marketed as more sustainable.14


1  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC);

2  NOAA,

3  NASA, Goddard Space Center, Last Updated 09/2019:



6  Trucost / S&P, 2019

7  Open LCA,