Sarah Fonder | Essays

An Expert Reveals the Secrets of Sustainable Design

IF Design Award

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by iF Design Award. For more information about the projects and to learn about the awards program, click here.

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, interest in sustainable products has skyrocketed. A growing concern for waste and emissions has inspired consumers to look for environmentally friendly alternatives to popular items on the market. Many companies are responding with environmental rebrands, promising greener products and more sustainable production. Unfortunately, a lack of environmental regulations makes this growing market fertile grounds for greenwashing.

Icelandic designer Elísabet Elfa, who currently works at Patagonia, is well-acquainted with the fine print of sustainable design.

“Someone like me that's been in the industry for a while, I know what questions to ask [about a product],” she said. “You say it's recycled? I'll say, ‘from what?’ Where did the input come from? What problem are you truly solving? Do you have control over your supply chain? Because there have [been] issues in supply chains that I’ve read about in school and in articles, where it's like, ‘oh, it's a fabric from recycled plastic bottles,’ [only to find that] they never served as a bottle—they were produced [solely to be recycled], and they became a second waste stream straightaway. Then you're just creating a new problem.”

Thanks to her keen eye and years of experience, she’s able to tell the difference between genuine progress and empty promise. Her expertise on sustainable design is valued at companies and events around the world, including as a juror of the 2020 iF Design Awards. When we asked for her favorites from this year’s ceremony, she saw it as a perfect opportunity to encourage continued innovation.

“What excited me was…that the Design Awards [jury has] started looking at impact…as one of their five criteria [when] looking at products, which is such a big step,” Elísabet said. “And hopefully, that will push more of the industry, and more industries in general, to start looking at it…We have been talking about sustainability for decades now, and we still have [a long way to go]. So I'm just happy to see everything that pushes industries, and…more entries this year…that had some kind of a sustainability indicator.”

As waste contributes a great deal to global emissions, Elísabet chose to examine the 2021 awards’ best examples of waste diversion.

“[We need to deal] with the waste that we are creating, because it is so vast,” she said. “We’ve just been so linear for so long, and we need to [become] more circular.”
But what makes a product truly sustainable? Below, Elísabet discusses the approaches she was most excited to see in this year’s iF award-winning designs.

IF Design Award
Ecover Laundry

IF Design Award
Left: Infinit Denim; Right: Hypnose

1. Upcycling
Most of Elísabet’s favorite designs used the increasingly popular method of upcycling. She singled out the new detergent bottle from Ecover Laundry for its clever re-use of plastic.

“[People Against Dirty in Malle (Belgium)] have been working on their actual soap for years, but now have taken it a step further with looking at what their bottle is made out of,” she said. “The entire bottle is post-consumer recycled material, and the cap on top is 50/50 post-consumer and postindustrial.” To Elísabet, this is a perfect example of ethical plastic use. “We’re [starting] to realize how bad [single-use] plastic is, [but] it isn’t that bad if we can keep it circular,” she elaborated.

Elísabet also admired the sustainable formula of Infinit Denim, developed by Back to Eco in Barcelona (Spain), which combines post-consumer jeans, pre-consumer fabric scraps, and a natural strengthening agent.

“When you lay a pattern on a piece of cloth, you always have to throw away a part, because…we are not two-dimensional…so it's great [to see] that fabric is getting collected and then put back into [a new product],” said Elísabet of Infinit Denim. “Then they seem to strengthen it with tensile wood-based fiber from ecologically grown forests…so it will have a longer life. I think they've done a good job.”

Elísabet applauded Hypnose’s sustainable redesign of porcelain tableware. With this project, Kütahya Porselen from Turkey combines post-production waste clay into one-of-a-kind bowls with psychedelic patterns.

“[Tableware] was…an industry I hadn't thought about in the aspects of sustainability, but [it’s] fantastic that they're taking this initiative to create a new product out of waste material,” she said. “It's simple, it's functional, and it's beautiful and unique.”

She also liked the bowls’ earthy, on-trend color scheme for their natural look. “It looks considerate to the planet, and looks like our environment a little bit.”

IF Design Award
Sepura Home

IF Design Award
Grace of Waste

2. Redesigning wasteful processes

Some practices are so ingrained into culture that it’s difficult to imagine life without them. This is why Elísabet was drawn to products that encourage consumers to reconsider their approach to waste in everyday life.

For example, the convenience of an at-home garbage disposal is too ubiquitous to question. Unfortunately, they send often perfectly compostable food to landfills, contributing to a significant amount of food waste.

“Every home seems to have a garbage disposal,” said Elísabet, who had never seen one before moving to America. “It must be super hard [on] the water cleaning plants.”

So Elísabet was “super excited” to discover a covetable, eco-friendly alternative in the Sepura Home. This machine by the WOKE studio Card79 in San Francisco seamlessly sorts food into a user-friendly, odor-proof bin. “I see multiple aspects of this being fantastic...like learning to take care of the waste that we create ourselves,” she said.

Elísabet also loved the Grace of Waste upcycled furoshiki by the Peter Schmidt Group in Hamburg (Germany). This scarf is a sustainable take on the Japanese tradition of wrapping gifts in reusable cloth. “They’re taking…post-consumer waste out of the ocean and creating a beautiful product,” she said.

She also liked how the scarf encourages less western approaches to sustainability. “[They’re] bringing a tradition from another country to…new [places], where this wrapping of a gift is in cloth that can be reused as maybe a neck scarf, or for a new gift. It's not a wrapping that's one and done, that you just throw away. It's a beautiful product, [and] it solves or helps mitigate a waste problem that it's created.”

This product reminded Elísabet of how much we still have to learn from each other, and highlighted the importance of diversity within environmental panels.

“I thought I was so well in verse with the topics of sustainability, and then someone comes in from another continent that I hadn't really had as much engagement with that totally opened my eyes, and I loved it.”

Elísabet also admired the scarf’s pattern, an artistic recreation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “[I love] that the print that they worked with here is to raise awareness,” she continued. “It creates an even bigger depth to the product.”

IF Design Award

3. Rethinking the chemical input of everyday products

Manufacturing goods often requires a great deal of chemicals, which harm humans as well as the environment. To illustrate this danger, Elísabet used a classic, chilling story from her workplace.

“Patagonia [switched] to organic cotton in the ‘90s [because of] formaldehyde poisoning in [one of] their stores,” she said. “They realized that industrially made cotton goes through a process which can leave formaldehyde in the clothing, and when you [leave] the clothing in the store that [was], in that case, not ventilated well enough, your staff can get formaldehyde poisoning. And…they said, ‘Well, there's no more cotton in our product until it's organic.’”

This highlights how sustainable processes can improve manufacturing from top to bottom. When companies rely on cheap materials to make products, this can have a negative effect on the health of workers and consumers alike. While organic alternatives to fabric are now increasingly common, Elísabet thinks it’s time to give other, more synthetic materials a second look. This is why she appreciated EcoTEX, an upcycled, low-emission carpet backing from Fletco Carpets A/S of Bording (Denmark).

“They’ve…excluded harmful chemicals like PVC, which is fantastic, [that] they’ve thought about the emission of the product while in your space,” she said. “I think [that’s] another thing that we haven't talked too much about, industry-wise…[This moves] an industry one step further, not just looking at the surface, but looking at every component in the product…If [something] needs to be virgin material because of durability and strength…we can still make big strides on recycled and waste stream inputs on the backer.”

IF Design Award
Hale PET Felt Stack Chair

4. Reducing production steps

While material sourcing is a very important part of sustainability, considerate use of energy is just as essential. The design of Ivan Kasner’s Hale PET Felt Stack Chair for DeVorm in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) caught Elísabet’s eye for its use of recycled steel and plastic, but she was especially drawn to its streamlined production. This attractive, modern take on the school chair reduces three manufacturing steps into one simple molding action.

“[I like] that they're focusing on not just the input of the materials, but also the production process,” she said. “I think that's something that…more companies need to start [looking at]…that sometimes it's actually in the hidden parts, the non-sexy part about building a product that reduces the impact.”

The simple design also makes this chair perfect for professional, commercial, and personal spaces.

“All in all, they look beautiful,” Elísabet continued. “They seem functional. They're stackable. So they just feel like they work in a lot of different contexts and environments.”

IF Design Award

5. Reducing electronic waste
“The electronics industry hasn't really shown a lot of signs of looking at sustainability, and [they're causing] so much chemical harm in some areas of the globe in their production stages,” Elísabet said. She was thrilled to discover JBL’s FLIP 5 ECO EDITION, an eco-friendly wireless speaker designed by Hyojin Kim at Harman Design Center (China).

“I was just so happy to see someone in electronics…talking about recycled inputs, and that 90% of the plastic in the speaker is recycled…and that their packaging is biodegradable…that’s huge steps for this industry, and I really want to applaud that they're moving forward.”

IF Design Award
Mint Box

6. Empowering the immediate community
Recycling is popular in households across political spectrums for being easy and widely accessible. While recent impact studies have questioned the ultimate value of recycling, its mainstream appeal proves that most people genuinely want to help the environment. Elísabet believes that if sustainable practices like composting were more accessible, it would make an immediate difference to our communities. For this reason, she loved the MINT BOX by Hangzhou Timing Technology (China), a bio-waste recycling system designed for urban neighborhoods.

“It just gave a bigger scale to the compostable garbage bin in your house,” she said. “If you don't want to have this in your home, then you can have it in your neighborhood, and the solution is around your corner. It's simple, it's easy. Everyone seems to be able to work it, and the neighborhoods or the community at large can invest in it together.”

MINT BOX’s emphasis on collective action gives Elísabet hope for the potential of current sustainability initiatives.

“It just shows that when we pull together as a group, we're actually pretty fantastic.”

IF Design Award
Tongan Wenbi Pagoda Park

7. Restoring the land
Since Elísabet sees protecting the outdoors as the ultimate goal of sustainability, she was adamant about honoring the Tongan Wenbi Pagoda Park. In this urbanization plan, Yiming Min from Xiamen Urban Environment Design (China) collaborated with the Tongan government to restore historically significant farmland.

“I just thought it was so good that [Tonga] wanted to…honor the farmers that used to be there, and the cultural heritage,” she said. “[They want to] give people historical context and understanding [of] ecological…unity, and how it works together, and I thought that was just so beautiful…We need to do this in more places around the world.”

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