Design has an important role to play in transitioning to more sustainable ways of living. It can encourage us to shift away from a reductionist, exploitative and dualistic approach to recognize that this world is complex, relational and interconnected. Sustainable design tries to make sense of the complex life-sustaining web that all life on this planet depends on, by engaging in systems thinking, so as to minimize negative environmental impact. Today, it is essential for businesses to find more sustainable and innovative solutions by re-evaluating ‘out of date’ strategies to find more environmentally conscious approaches to run their business. Sustainable design can support individuals and businesses to make more informed decisions, so that they can create greater positive impact and move away from unsustainability. 

Why is Sustainable Design so important? 

The linear economy’s approach (Resource Extraction > Production > Distribution > Consumption > Dispose) is based on the endless exploitation of natural resources to be used in our products, buildings and energy. By now we know that this cannot work on the long-run as this extensive exploitation is unbearable as it has seriously damaged the ecosystems that humans depend on. In order to move away from linear systems, design can help to re-think and restructure our linear systems, by finding sustainable long-term solutions that can regenerate natural resources by reducing waste (e.g., energy, water and pollution), revitalising soil, recovering and reusing materials, adapting and working with natural systems. 

One aspect that is worth mentioning is that the term sustainability has become quite a buzzword that has also been associated with negative implications, such as that of greenwashing, which is when corporations use marketing to make their brand image appear eco-friendlier. But the general idea of sustainable design is certainly a positive one. 

There are quite a few layers that have to be unpeeled to understand what sustainable design can be made up of. Generally sustainable design strategies are trying to figure out how to better understand the complex systems, from which the main three would be the social, industrial and ecological. 

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In order to make better choices for the future, we will have to test sustainable design strategies and see which one will work best in all of the three systems. Finding the right strategy is usually not so easy, as this does not work on a ‘one-fits-all’ basis as you will have to consider several aspects.

The Living Principles for Design Framework was drawn from influential sustainability manifestos, principles, visions, frameworks and tools from the last 50 years.

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The most common concepts and strategies associated with sustainable design:

Systems thinking: views systems in a holistic manner by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole of the system. It explores the inter-relationships (context and connections), perspectives (each actor has their own unique perception of the situation) and boundaries (agreeing on scope, scale and what might constitute an improvement). (source: https://learningforsustainability.n

Circular thinking: is all about closing the loop and ‘designing out’ waste and pollution to keeping products and materials in use so natural systems can regenerate (source:

Biomimicry: a concept that looks at mimicking ideas from nature by implementing them to create products, processes, and policies, so that we can learn from how nature performs the functions that we want our designs to perform, and then applying what we learn to create innovative and sustainable design solutions. (source: Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Design) 

Cradle to Cradle: can be defined as the design and production of products of all types in such a way that at the end of their life, they can be truly recycled (upcycled), imitating nature’s cycle with everything either recycled or returned to the earth, directly or indirectly through food, as a completely safe, nontoxic, and biodegradable nutrient. (source:

Although designers are working to find creative solutions to transition to a more sustainable prospect, they are not the only ones responsible. We are all stakeholders that take part in shaping the future, and therefore it is important to think about our own choices, which are going to impact what stands ahead. Practicing sustainable design includes an underlying shift in how we see and understand the world. If we value all life and recognize that the interrelatedness between entities that are interdependent, we are more likely to support its continuation. 

Thinking Local

For sustainable societies to form, we have to support a shift towards localization. Networks of activists and organizations are already working to generate bottom-up solutions for sustainable development, also known as ‘grassroot innovations’. Localized economies manage to find solutions that respond to the local situation, by adapting to the values and interests of the group involved. They have the potential to form the foundation for strong, resilient and sustainable communities.

Inspiring Sustainable Design Startups

  1. ‘Beyond Leather Materials’ is a Danish biotechnology startup that was inspired by biomimicry and turns apples into leather. Providing a sustainable solution to both our problem with leather and food waste. –

  2. The Paris-based startup ‘Pili’ seeks to disrupt the unsustainable production of dyes by replacing the toxic chemical processes with microbial fermentation. –
  3. ‘Kulero’ is a German startup that produces edible straws and spoons in several different flavours to provide an alternative for single-use plastic cutlery. –
  4. The startup ‘Honext’ is based in Barcelona and developed a sustainable construction board material made from a combination of enzymes and cellulose taken from the waste streams of paper production. The material is made from cellulose residue taken from cardboard and paper waste generated at paper mills. –

If you are interested in knowing more or you are looking to start your own sustainable business you might be interested in accelerator programs such as
RE:WIEN who works with ventures to develop their ideas further, establish smart and resource-efficient processes and build strong and sustainable businesses operating on the market. Or the Fashion Accelerator for Better Business FABB, which is there to help sustainable fashion startups by offering a program of expert guidance, one-on-one coaching, and peer-to-peer learning in a small group of like-minded entrepreneurs.