While sustainable product design is often associated with the physical objects that surround us in everyday life, it’s not just about recycled packaging and reduced use of plastic. It’s also about the impact that our digital lives are having on the environment:
Every time we use a search engine like Google, there’s an output of greenhouse gases.
Every email has an estimated carbon footprint of four grams of CO2.
The average website produces 1.76 grams of CO2, per page view.
It all adds up. If the internet was a country, it would be the fourth most polluting in the world, with approximately 4% of global greenhouse emissions.
So, what can we do to create a more sustainable approach to digital usage and innovation? And where does digital product design come into all of this?
First, brands of all shapes and sizes need to realise the role they play in the sustainability agenda and that includes ‘digital’ brands.
Second, digital executives and teams need to step up and incorporate sustainability into their wider digital strategies. Senior digital executives in Large Enterprises are particularly well placed to drive positive change and spearhead sustainable initiatives in their organisations. Senior managers in marketing, digital and technology can additionally adopt holistic approaches to things like digital product launches – thereby contributing to the sustainability of digital overall, and at the same time unlocking new opportunities for growth and customer engagement.
What is sustainability in digital product design?
It’s worth taking a quick step back here to understand what sustainability means within the context of digital product design.
According to the Interaction Design Foundation, “A sustainably designed product or service is one that considers the entire lifecycle of the product during development, from manufacturing to disposal. A truly sustainable design is optimised for reuse.”
In the world of digital product design, this definition extends to how digital products are developed in the context of their power usage and how long they are designed to last with minimal carbon footprints. However, it doesn’t stop there. Sustainability in digital product design also refers to the integration of environmentally conscious and socially responsible practices throughout the entire lifecycle of a digital product.
This therefore includes:
Minimising resource consumption in the design process itself.
Reducing carbon footprints in the development process.
Mitigating negative environmental impacts associated with the product’s creation, usage and disposal.
Making informed choices regarding energy efficiency of the digital product.
Designing for longevity and digital ‘repurposability’.
Ensuring inclusivity, accessibility and data privacy.
Addressing potential biases in algorithms.
Promoting digital literacy and digital rights.
Whilst sustainability in a more traditional sense covers the environmental impact and carbon footprint of a product, when it comes to the modern-day definition of digital sustainability, this also considers issues such as accessibility and digital literacy, all of which work towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) agenda.
The business case for sustainability in digital product design
Sustainability in digital product design is a relatively new concept, in part because the environmental impact of the digital world has only been tracked for a few years. That said, if we draw a comparison from the physical product design world, where efforts to reduce environmental impact have been underway for quite some time, it’s easy to see how similar efforts in the digital space could have the same business consequences.
Sustainable initiatives and ESG goals have historically been seen as cost and labour intensive, adding extra financial burden to a company and brand. Whereas in fact, sustainable design has had the opposite effect on those large Enterprise brands implementing it.
According to a Capgemini report entitled “ Rethink: Why Sustainable Product Design Is the Need of the Hour”, brands that have moved sustainability to the top of their business agendas have also seen positive business impact:
And of those taking on a more sustainable approach to product design, many have seen that it does not always lead to increased cost. In fact, 23% found that it decreased costs (Capgemini infographic).
This business impact is becoming so strong that Harvard Business Review (HBR) has coined it the ‘Triple Bottom Line’, or the ‘three Ps’ of People, Planet, and Profit. To achieve these bottom-line results, HBR outlines the 8 key business benefits of sustainable practices:
Driving internal innovation
Reducing environmental and supply risk
Attracting and retaining employees
Expanding audience reach and building brand loyalty
Reducing production costs
Garnering positive publicity
Standing out in a competitive market
Setting the industry trend
We see that the business case does not just end with positive environmental outcomes, it can also contribute to wider benefits relating to brand reputation and employee satisfaction.
How sustainable digital product designs benefit society and brands alike
Let us take a closer look at the broader benefits that a sustainability agenda can have for big brands and Large Enterprises.