Sustainable Design: The Key To Unlocking A Sustainable Future

Alina Gross

As a millennial who is studying for a master’s degree, I still have much to look forward to. But, as 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg recently asked: “Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future?”

Given our growing understanding that climate change is a real threat to human civilization in the near future, and in the face of activism from organizations such as Fridays for Future, many people, myself included, see the management and regulation of the climate crisis as the defining challenge of the 21st century.

Companies must design, manufacture, and deliver sustainable products that meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Problems start with overconsumption

To live means to consume, and we consume a lot: We consume air, water, and food every day. In addition to these essentials, we consume an ever-increasing amount of goods and services such as cars, houses, computers, electricity, natural resources, etc. – the list is endless. And because the global market depends on our continuous and increasing consumption, it does its best to make us want more, and in turn, buy more and waste more.

The more products are demanded, the more are produced, and the more energy is used for their production and consumption.

Design determines the ecological footprint of the whole product lifecycle

One of the biggest and best-understood factors affecting climate change is transportation. But as the recent fires in the Amazon rain forests have highlighted, land-use changes such as deforestation to accommodate the increasing demand for agriculture also contribute significantly and are causing the largest increase in CO2 gases according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). For more on how the Amazon fires affect our environment and our businesses, read here.

The impact of agriculture on the environment doesn’t stop there – 70% of worldwide water consumption is attributed to the irrigation of crops (WRI). Even more sobering, as the world’s population continues to grow (it is expected to reach 10 billion in 2055 ), estimates suggest that at the current consumption rate, economic growth, and income levels in developing countries, global agriculture production must increase about 60% to 70% to meet the increased food demand in 2050.

Product designers and engineers can help to significantly reduce the environmental impact of products by changing how they design new products, taking into account the environmental impact early in the product development process.

Irrigation sprinkler systems, for example, can be designed to use water from non-conventional sources like treated wastewater, desalinated water, drainage water, or fog collection.

Hybrid vehicles that use natural gas or are electrically powered are already an increasingly popular sustainable option. But as we design new means of transportation, there are other ways to reduce the ecological footprint – for example, by replacing polluting air conditioners. Existing air conditioners work with fluorinated greenhouse gases. CO2 cooling can instead be installed as a natural component of air. Further measures include heat-reflecting paints, heat-reflecting glazing, and photovoltaic systems on larger vehicles such as buses.

Driving sustainable practices from design-to-operate

When the supply chain is aligned and integrated seamlessly – from design through planning, manufacturing, delivery, and operation – companies are better positioned to achieve their sustainability goals. Data visibility, flexible collaboration, and the ability to respond quickly to challenges and opportunities foster the design and development of products that are biodegradable, environmentally sustainable, and ethically sourced. They also help generate minimal waste of natural resources and boost compliance with fair trade policies.

I often think about the many days I spent outdoors as a child – catching grasshoppers and collecting snails were two of my favorite childhood activities. Now I hope for a future in which the next generations can also experience such a nature-loving childhood. I may be a millennial, but I am thinking far beyond my own life span to ensure that my children and grandchildren have a future and grow up in an environment that’s worth living in.

Business can – and must – step up to be a part of the solution.

Find out more about the options available to your organization to increase sustainability and have a look at the IDC report “Design as a Critical Element of Digital Supply Chain.”


Alina Gross

About Alina Gross

Alina Gross holds a BA in international business and is currently deepening her knowledge by adding an MA in international marketing management. As a working student at SAP she focuses on marketing and project management topics within the field of supply chain, especially around content marketing, event management and social media.