Monday, November 12, 2012

Are there Sustainable Materials?

Sustainability…  Green products…

These topics have grown increasingly important in the realm of design and new product development in recent years, but are they really worth pursuing?

We all want a healthy planet to leave to our children, and that almost certainly means looking differently at how we utilize the world’s resources.  So, we come up with phrases like “green products” and mandates like “our company must have sustainable products”, but what does that really mean?  And, can it really impact the health of the planet?

What defines a sustainable product anyway?  If I make a product out of bamboo and corn starch, then it’s sustainable, right?  If I make a product that is biodegradable, that’s sustainable, right?  If I make a product out of recyclable materials, that’s sustainable, right?  Well, maybe not.

Consider this.  All products consume energy to be produced, and delivered to market.  So, even that bamboo chair has a carbon footprint to it, and it’s going to take a good bit of energy (and possibly water resources) to recapture the plastic or aluminum used to package your favorite beverages.  There is more to it than just simple material choice alone; how long the product will endure needs to be balanced against how long the product should endure.

Let’s consider material selection and product life.  With a few exceptions, materials in and of themselves are neither sustainable nor not sustainable.  There aren’t evil materials and good materials; materials are just materials.  But, the nature of the products we develop determines whether we are using the materials in a sustainable way or not.  It’s actually a fantastic thing that some plastics last a thousand years, so long as we don’t turn them into products that are meant to be thrown away after a few minutes.  Likewise, it’s a horrible idea to make a product out of a material that biodegrades in twelve months, if the product is something that the user would want to keep for a long time – then they have to buy the product over and over again, which has a worse environmental impact than just buying a durable plastic one to start with.

So, are there sustainable materials?  No.  Almost every material is sustainable or not sustainable based on how we utilize it. 

(caveat: There are, of course, a few materials that may have extreme environmental hazards associated with their production such as Polytetrafluoroethylene, and extreme care should be used in their production.)


  1. Good point of view. So, how do you design sustainable products?

  2. I think the more precise question is "how do you design products that are more sustainable"? It's arguable that no product is truly sustainable, as they all require energy to produce and get to market.

    To expand on my post, I think it's important to match material properties with the product use as much as possible. For better or worse, however, some of the materials that last in our environment the longest are also the least expensive, so they are often chosen based on cost rather than sustainability. Ultimately, there must be a balance - a sustainable product also has to be economically sustainable as well. I'll write a post on that topic another day.


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