The Future of Sustainable Design

Nov 14, 2016 4:15 PM ET

The next step in sustainable production is the circular economy, says founder and editor Starre Vartan. That means leaving behind today’s make, use, dispose model to create products transparently and with less impact. Such products will be built to last, but can be transformed, recovered or even used to improve the environment at the end of their life.

Eco-Chick and EcoCult gathered leaders from the fashion, building and auto industries to talk about this vision for a more sustainable future. Here are some of their insights.  

1. To disrupt the current linear system, we need to rethink our materials. Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, discussed the need to extend the lifespan of clothes by creating new fabrics that make it easier to turn that material into new items. Rethinking blends is one way to do that. Lewis Perkins, president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, said designing a pair of pants made from a combination of spandex, elastic, cotton and wool today is destined for a landfill. By looking at fabric from a chemical and molecular level, we can create an intelligent materials concept.

2. Responsible manufacturing matters. Mari Kay Scott, GM’s executive director of global environmental compliance and sustainability, envisions a future where manufacturing produces zero waste and is powered by renewable energy. It takes employee and supplier engagement and creative thinking to find closed-loop recycling opportunities. GM, for example, turns cardboard into vehicle headliners, scrap tires into car air deflectors, and plastic bottles into engine cover insulation.

3. Design for the environment from the get-go. GM knew that its electric car batteries would have up to 80 percent of their storage left after their life in a vehicle, so they worked with designers to establish a secondary use for energy storage – a key component in GM’s plan to meet the electricity needs of 350 global operations using 100 percent renewable energy.

4. Buildings aren’t static; they need to adapt with us. Ammr Vandal, an associate principal of Brooklyn-based nARCHITECTS, discussed innovation in construction. The materials that builders use should not only stand the test of time, but be cost-effective and flexible. She said buildings should be multi-purpose or have the ability to convert from residential to commercial as needed. Some architects are even considering how their materials can serve as a resource for the building’s next phase.

5. We need both gradual changes and big steps to move forward. Incremental change is important because when a lot of people do something, it has great impact. But big steps also drive great progress. Within the fashion industry, think about a breakthrough in recycling those material blends.

6. Think in terms of systems. How does a product – whether it be a car, a piece of clothing or a building – fit within the broader environment?  New connections are possible when seeing the world through a more holistic lens. Continued collaboration and a commitment to advancing the sharing economy can help increase our sustainability.

7. Transparency matters. The panelists agreed that the circular economy shouldn’t be used as a competitive advantage; it should be something everyone takes part in. Furthermore, it’s important to share best practices to demonstrate what’s possible. Scott talked about how employees want to work for a company that does good, and ensuring they know what the company is doing to improve communities can become a real pride point.

8. Keep innovating. Cradle to Cradle’s Perkins believes innovation and design happen under constraint. Think about diversifying into fibers made from oranges or algae, or developing new kids of plastics and polymers. And don’t think just about your product, consider its packaging, as well. He referenced companies using mushroom-based packaging as an alternative to Styrofoam.

Guided by the vision of a circular economy and everyday progress to keep materials in use, the future is shaping up to be beautifully designed.