What Is Sustainable Industrial Design?

B. Turner

Sustainable industrial design is the process of developing eco-friendly products and manufacturing technologies. A product or technology can be defined as sustainable when it meets all the needs of users today without depriving future generations of natural resources related to health, energy, and the environment. Industrial designers who are focused on sustainability work to make products from eco-friendly materials using processes and techniques that will not harm the environment. Sustainable industrial design may involve swapping fossil fuels like coal for renewable energy sources like solar or geothermal power. It also requires designers to use materials that will last, and can easily be recycled or transformed into other useful goods.

Solar panels can generate clean, sustainable energy.
Solar panels can generate clean, sustainable energy.

During the industrial design process, engineers and designers develop products to meet the demands of consumers. These products must function as intended while also providing some level of aesthetic benefit. Sustainable industrial design has the added goal of creating attractive, functional products that are also eco-friendly. The order or priority of form, function, and sustainability can vary by industry or company. For example, some companies may hold sustainability above all else while others are unwilling to sacrifice form or function in order to improve eco-friendliness.

Sustainable industrial design might be used to redesign a factory to limit air pollution.
Sustainable industrial design might be used to redesign a factory to limit air pollution.

One major goal of sustainable industrial design involves choosing natural or sustainable materials. This means relying on cotton, hemp, or leather rather than synthetic fabrics, which are derived from petroleum. It may also involve incorporating recycled materials into a product, or developing objects made from biodegradable or recyclable materials. While many manufacturers focus on developing disposable products, those who are focused on sustainability design products that will last long term. This means creating items that are durable and easy to repair over time.

Sustainable industrial design also requires manufacturers to switch to more sustainable and eco-friendly production methods. This may involve redesigning a factory to make it more efficient, or switching from a non-renewable energy source to energy derived from wind, water, or solar power. The production process should not create pollution that could impact water or air quality. It must not result in the release of greenhouse gas emissions, which can damage the ozone layer and contribute to global warming.

Designers who are interested in sustainability may also consider the impact that products can have on human health. This means choosing non-toxic materials instead of those that can contribute to poor health. For example, some forms of plastic are known endocrine disrupters, and may contribute to cancer or impact fetal development. Vinyl and other materials derived from petroleum may also off-gas over time and release harmful fumes, including formaldehyde, which can cause short- or long-term illness.

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