In recent years, many brands and small businesses have struggled to provide consumers with environmentally friendly products or services. But how do we judge whether a product is environmentally friendly? We often hear people use "environmentally friendly" and "sustainability" interchangeably. In fact, there is a difference between the two terms. When they are applied to product design, it means two levels of meaning. In this article, I will share my experience in eco-friendly and sustainable product development from a small business perspective.
What is eco-friendly and sustainability?
Eco-friendly products means everything from product development, production and packaging to products that are safe for the planet. For example, a company uses eco-dyes to produce fabrics, or a factory minimizes waste and packaging materials during manufacturing.
Sustainability is more about the future. Sustainable products should provide social, environmental, and economic benefits. For example, bamboo charcoal deodorants made from natural bamboo charcoal will eventually decompose back into the soil as fertilizer. Materials that consume less energy and pollute during production are also considered sustainable. Also, reusable, and non-polluting products are sustainable.
Minimize excessive packaging
Over the past few years, many of my clients have pursued sustainability and environmental product designs, not only because it's a social responsibility, but also to enhance their brand images. Unfortunately, almost all these big brands are putting too much emphasis on superficial eco-friendliness to please consumers. For many projects I've worked on, the biggest problem has always been packaging. Designers focus on designing "green" packaging, but often ignore the back-end support of the production line, which often requires factories to use more energy, man-hours and waste to complete such "green" packaging products.
I once had a project to make cookware gift sets for a client. To be environmentally friendly, the designers designed a paper tray without a vinyl cover, and deliberately made the cardboard tray shallower than it should to reduce the use of packaging materials. In the end, this proved to be a disaster, as it ended up using a lot more extra materials to secure them in the carton to prevent damage.
When designing packaging, designers must consider not only retail appeal, but also the production efficiency. Finding a balance between the two can truly optimize both the environmental and sustainability goals.
Natural, recycled, or recyclable materials?
Choosing materials for eco-friendly products can often be challenging, especially for small businesses. Many eco-friendly materials, such as organic cotton and biodegradable plastics, often require high minimum order quantities and often lack color options. This makes prototyping and design harder and more expensive.
To make my products more environmentally friendly, I often use natural materials such as cotton, corduroy, jute, cork, and bamboo fibers as main product ingredients. While in many cases I cannot use organic cotton due to style and color constraints, I make sure they are colored with ecological dyes from reliable suppliers.
Besides natural materials, recycled or recyclable materials are another option. What is the difference between the two? Recycled materials are made from materials that have been reprocessed or otherwise treated as waste. For example, converting used water bottles to polyester fabric is a popular recycled material. We call it rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate polyester fabric).
Recyclable materials, on the other hand, are those that can be made from virgin raw materials but can be recycled after use. For example, TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane) is an eco-friendly and recyclable material because not only is it recyclable (not all plastics are recyclable), but it also consumes less energy than PVC in its production process. It is an eco-friendly alternative to non-recyclable plastics like PVC.
Manufacturing toys and gift products often involves more than one material, many of which cannot be biodegraded or recycled. In this case, my advice is to do your best. During product development, we should consider how many eco-friendly or sustainable materials are available and how we can optimize their usage. We should also consider product reusability, as this is a pragmatic way to protect the planet. Our fabric masks, for example, are designed based on this concept, where more than 85% of the material is biodegradable and can be reused at least 100 times with gentle hand washing.
Soft toys or stuffed animals are very popular gifts all over the world. However, most plush toys are made from synthetic polyester fibers, which are difficult to recycle and take many years to decompose. I always discourage people from buying too many plush toys, or they should be exchanged or donated to those in need. Another way to improve eco-friendliness is to use natural fabrics, such as cotton or jute, on the exterior of the toy. However, the filling is always 100% non-biodegradable polyester fibre. While biodegradable bioplastic fiber fillers can be used, they are not as soft as polyester and are therefore not popular. Currently, the use of degradable fillers in plush production is still very limited. Our team experimented with 99% biodegradable stuffed animals using natural fabrics and biodegradable stuffing. The look and feel are satisfying, but it still goes a long way in terms of product variety.
Reduce wastage throughout design process
Throughout my career, I've encountered many situations where my clients waste a lot of resources (time, materials, man-hours, effort, etc.) in design processes. This is largely due to a lack of communication between departments such as design, quality and production teams. A common phenomenon is that designers are idea-driven, with little regard for product safety and quality during the concept and early prototyping stages. Safety and quality teams are usually not involved until mid-project, while production teams are always the last to be involved. When problems are discovered at a later stage, changes in materials or production methods may result. Worst of all, if material is purchased but needs to be replaced due to safety concerns, then this can lead to a lot of waste.
Frequent prototyping is also often an issue. Prototyping is an expensive process as it involves trial and error of various techniques and possible materials and processes. Most of the time, discarded options trigger leftover materials, not to mention the man-hours and effort involved. To make this process more sustainable, it is important to reduce the amount of prototyping. Design, quality, safety, and production teams should communicate more deeply in the early development stages to identify all possible options, then filter the less likely ones and start with the one or two most likely to be the most sustainable. This not only keeps the product safe, but also reduces a lot of time, effort, and material waste. In the long run, companies can achieve a more sustainable product development process.
Make the product life cycle longer
Since the rise of fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Zara, consumers have grown accustomed to buying clothing that can only be worn for a short period of time. This consumer behavior is known to generate a lot of waste each year. Shopping for clothes, bags, and even many home accessories and gifts has become more "disposable" than ever. We advocate buying good quality products that can be used for a longer time. Maybe it costs more, but using it longer means it's cheaper than lower-quality low-priced items. Choosing items that are not only of good quality but also designed to be more timeless is a pragmatic way to cut down on waste.
Businesses, large and small, should all be involved in protecting our planet. Business owners can actively advocate for a more environmentally friendly and sustainable lifestyle by introducing consumers to better ecological products. Small businesses can still develop great ecological and sustainable products through careful planning, deeper communication between departments, and focus on selected options. This approach not only reduces waste, but also shortens development time without compromising the safety and quality of the final product. In terms of materials, try to use biodegradable, recyclable or recyclable ones that are affordable. As for packaging, designers should find a balance between environmental protection, aesthetics, and production efficiency. A truly eco-friendly and sustainable product should be one that is of good quality, lasts longer, and is packaged simply but safely. Of course, a pretty appeal is also a must.