How You Can Support Sustainable Product Design

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When the crew of the Apollo 17 left the Earth’s orbit on Dec. 17, 1972, they took the first photograph of the Earth in full view. The “Blue Marble” went on to be one of the mostly widely distributed images ever. This photograph created a new perspective for many people by showing us that the Earth has finite resources. This famous photo even helped launch the modern environmental movement.

The notion that Earth’s resources are finite helped inspire the concept of the circular economy, which is “restorative and regenerative by design” and strives to “keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is focused on accelerating the transition to a circular economy.

To explore what the circular economy really means, Earth911 talked to Jaime and Isaac Salm, creative director and managing director at MIO, respectively, about more-sustainable purchasing. MIO is a sustainable design consultancy and lifestyle firm that bridges the divide between business and sustainability through design. Their vision is to mirror nature and integrate products with the planet. “For us, sustainability means changing and growing every day, adapting to our needs and technological opportunities to achieve zero impact,” the company says on their site.

The Ripple PaperForms Wall Tiles from MIO add an interesting temporary texture to any wall. Photo: MIO

The Ripple PaperForms Wall Tiles from MIO add an interesting temporary texture to any wall. Photo: MIO

Style Matters

The Salm brothers take many factors into account when designing sustainable products, but most of all they want people to love the items they make or at least find them very useful. “When you look at products that have been successful, it isn’t necessarily because they’re the greenest products on the market,” Jaime says. “They are cool, funky, adaptable, and we are rewarding people for doing the right thing. Sustainability should be fun and engaging.” Look for products that speak to you and are well designed — artfulness and stylishness can go hand in hand with practicality.

The Nomad System Room Dividers from MIO are made out of cardboard, which makes them easy to recycle. Photo: MIO

The Nomad System Room Dividers from MIO are made out of cardboard, which makes them easy to recycle. Photo: MIO

Making Sustainable Product Design Affordable

Many people believe that sustainable products are more expensive, thus making them affordable only to certain people. Using less-costly materials, like paper and cardboard, for example, can help make sustainable products attainable for a wider group of people. Paper is also a great material because it’s recyclable and there’s an extensive recycling infrastructure in place. For those reasons, MIO produces paper dimensional wall art and corrugated cardboard room dividers. Because they are made primarily of one material, they can easily be recycled when they are no longer usable.

“If the product is for temporary use, make sure it is made out of temporary materials,” Isaac says. “Match the durability of the materials to length of use.”

While more-expensive items might seem overpriced on the surface, durable products can save money over time by decreasing the need to replace them. If you plan on using a product for a long time, the Salm brothers suggest examining how well it is constructed. Does it contain hardy materials, and is it made to last for years? Do you really like the product or will you get tired of it?

This is a great concept to ponder before making purchases both large and small. It would rule out the use of Styrofoam for disposable cups, for example, but perhaps not for insulating a building. The Salm brothers encourage us to pay attention to the materials used to produce goods and to avoid PVC, Styrofoam and excessive packaging.

Before buying a product, ask yourself if you really need it. (If it's these Capsule Lights, the answer is probably yes!) Photo: MIO

Before buying a product, ask yourself if you really need it. (If it’s these Capsule Lights, the answer is probably yes!) Photo: MIO

Examining Purchases

Isaac and Jaime recommend people always take the time to question their purchases. “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it,” Jaime says.

If it’s something you only need periodically, perhaps you could rent or borrow it. Many people are able to avoid car ownership by renting one as needed. If you do buy an item that you only use once in a while, set up a system in which you lend it to friends or even rent it out to strangers. Uber and Airbnb make use of this concept of collaborative consumption on a large scale with car rides and spare bedrooms.

MIO's Two Tone Coffee Table is made with responsibly harvested ash wood. Photo: MIO

MIO’s Two Tone Coffee Table is made with responsibly harvested ash wood. Photo: MIO

Doing Some Homework

In addition to pondering whether a purchase makes sense, it’s important to do ample research beforehand. “If you are a consumer and you want to be aware, it is all about doing some research,” Jaime says. “If I eat fish, what types of fish are more sustainable?”

Green product certification and labels can also help us make informed purchasing decisions and can reduce the time it takes to do digging on our own. The downside to green product labels is that they can greenwash products if there isn’t a strict enough criteria. In other words, green labels can be used for marketing purposes to make a product look greener than it really is. Find labels that you can trust before relying on this as a factor.

The word natural on food packaging is a good example. Because there is not an official definition by the Food and Drug Administration for the term natural, it is often used on foods that most of us would not consider natural. Foods with synthetic dyes, preservatives and additives could still be labeled as natural, potentially misleading shoppers.

It is also helpful to consider what you will do with a product when you are done with it. If it is still in usable condition, consider selling it, donating it or giving it away. If it is made of one recyclable material, you can probably recycle it, especially if it is no longer usable. This even applies to torn or stained clothing.

MIO's Flip Stools can be assembled in hundreds of different ways. Photo: MIO

MIO’s Flip Stools can be assembled in hundreds of different ways. Photo: MIO

Making Improvements Bit by Bit

Isaac recommends keeping in mind that living a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. “You need to make incremental changes,” he suggests. “When you go food shopping, you buy the right ingredients. Maybe you do this with your own knowledge or by looking at the label. Then on your next trip, you make sure you aren’t using plastic bags. Three months later, you go to the market on your bike [instead of by car].”

Making gradual changes over time is a great way to create a more sustainable lifestyle. You can emphasize one room and start working through tips on creating a greener kitchen, then begin making your own natural cleaning products, and then move on to using essential oils to treat common ailments.

“Make some green behavior changes and see how you feel about them,” Jaime says. “If you feel good about them, you can enhance them or make them a bigger part of your life.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Sarah Lozanova
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Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is a renewable energy and sustainability journalist and communications professional with an MBA in sustainable management. She is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Earth911, Home Power, Triple Pundit, CleanTechnica, The Ecologist, GreenBiz, Renewable Energy World and Windpower Engineering. Lozanova also works with several corporate clients as a public relations writer to gain visibility for renewable energy and sustainability achievements.
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