Sustainable design shapes the future of food packaging


Swedish company Ecolean's super-thin packaging

PHOTO GALLERY: In exclusive images from a brilliant new eco-design book we illustrate innovative ways designers around the world are creating sustainable food packaging, products and appliances...

Designers are in the business of making stuff. When done well, this makes people consume more in order to help businesses grow. This simple equation used to be the very definition of successful design, but it was also, in many cases, undeniably narrow-minded as well, helping to encourage a culture of consumption that currently threatens literally to consume itself. So how is the designer’s role evolving as our world-view expands to consider some very big questions about the fate of the planet?

Until recently, design for sustainable living had often been synonymous with subtraction – having less, living smaller, limiting oneself. This early instinct, of course, was always woefully misguided. In truth, sustainable design is the rejection of less. Sustainability insists that we add more to the world than we take away from it. It asks us to be bigger than ourselves. And it pushes conversations beyond shareholder value toward shareholder values.

And value are, without question, fundamentally shifting. The goal of any designer, no matter what they think about green design, is to create an enduring product. Continued relevance is a hallmark of brilliant and elegant design. In order to stay relevant, innovative design must not simply respond to these shifting values, but help shape them as well. At IDEO, I see this happening in two particularly interesting ways.

First, we’re skipping to the end of the story. That means designing not just purchase and use experiences for any given product, but also its obsolescence. Whether a product is designed to last for a few days or for a couple of generations, we cannot overlook its end of life. But when you truly value this important moment, it necessarily impacts on all design decisions that precede it – often in unexpected and exciting ways. In fact, far from being limiting to great design, a sustainable mindset simply requires that we imbue each choice with an extra level of care and meaning. […] This is an instinct that is already written into the DNA of most great designers, and hardly the compromise one would assume. By designing the end with as much creativity and passion as we do the beginning and middle, we are in fact staring a longer and ultimately deeper conversation with our customers.

Second, we’re colouring outside the lines. Whereas our job used to concern itself almost exclusively with the interaction between the product and the user, we now have access to a much larger canvas. Although at IDEO we are unapologetic about the centrality of the user experience in all our design, most of the truly ‘green’ elements of a sustainable product will always be invisible – or nearly so – to the primary consumer. That means we must design beyond the product and also ask questions about the processes. In so doing, our purview expands to considering ways to evolve manufacturing processes or re-imagine existing technologies. Or it could involve re-thinking a business channel or even model. We are literally required to be holistic in both our thinking and output, which greatly extends the reach of our impact. We are mediating not only the relationship people have with products, but the natural, industrial and commercial relationships that surround them as well.

The collection of objects portrayed in this book give a hued overview of the opportunities, challenges, and many different approaches designers today choose to advance sustainability. Designers are indeed in the business of making things. This collection of work shows how they approach what seems to be a dilemma with hope, action and often courage to design for change.


Leif Huff is managing director of innovation and design firm IDEO Munich. This article is an extract from his introduction to Product Design in the Sustainable Era by Dalcacio Reis (Taschen, £24.99)



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