Environmental, social and economic challenges

Environmental considerations for designers, and the 6 Rs

Designers need to understand the challenges of using raw materials and the processes available to limit the amount of waste when manufacturing a product. The world has a bigger population than ever before, and the need for more raw materials causes a range of issues:

Deforestation - A lack of tree roots leads to soil erosion, causing rivers to silt up. It is possible to manage deforestation through responsible management of the forests. If more trees are planted than are cut, it is possible to minimise the impact. Designing to ensure less wastage will cost less and be better for the environment.

Mining and drilling - The environmental impact of mining and drilling is primarily to the area around the sites. Loss of habitat for wildlife is caused by the clearance of land above the sites as well as the noise and light pollution in the area. Water run-off can also create ponds of concentrated chemicals, which can harm the human and wildlife population. Designing products that use a more renewable set of materials will help solve this problem.

Carbon footprint - Mining, moving and processing raw materials, then moving them onto the consumer causes pollution of its own. CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions from factories, power stations and vehicles need to be reduced to stop further damage to the environment. Everything has a carbon footprint, from creating the raw material to delivering the product in a vehicle. The best way of combating CO2 emissions is by using the 6 Rs.

The 6 Rs, reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, refuse and repair illustrated around a rubbish bin.

The 6 Rs

It is important for designers to minimise the impact their product will have on the environment:

  • Repair - Can the product be fixed instead of throwing it away into landfill? Repairing a washing machine can cost a lot less than buying a new one.
  • Reuse - Can the product be passed on or its life extended by using it repeatedly? Reusable carrier bags from the supermarket are a good example.
  • Recycle - Can materials such as metal, plastic and glass be collected and converted? Plastic bottles can be shredded into pellets to make new plastic bottles.
  • Rethink - Can the design be remade using a different material? Using a quick-growing, renewable material such as cotton or bamboo would be better than a non-renewable plastic-based fabric such as polyester.
  • Reduce - Are there products that last longer or can be recharged? Can the miles the product has to travel be cut? Or could rechargeable batteries or locally-sourced products be used?
  • Refuse - Thinking twice before buying a product with wasteful packaging or a large carbon footprint.

Environmental footprint

Environmental and carbon footprints both illustrate the impact of human activity on the environment.

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An environmental footprint compares the resources people consume with the land and water area needed to replace them. Carbon footprints deal with resource usage, but focus strictly on the emissions released.

If products or raw materials have travelled a long way, they have a larger carbon footprint. Carbon emissions from vehicles produce CO2 in the atmosphere. Some companies try to help manage this in several ways:

  • planting trees to absorb the CO2
  • buying products locally to avoid CO2 emissions
  • powering their facilities using renewable energy to reduce their carbon footprint

Another issue is waste and packaging - this has led countries to sign agreements to cut waste and use more responsible sources and recyclable raw materials to try to help tackle landfill and ocean pollution.

Ethical issues are becoming more important to designers. It is becoming more likely that consumers will ask whether the products they’re buying are harming the environment or treating people unfairly. Fair trade is a principle where everyone in the chain of manufacturing is offered fair wages and good working conditions:

  • a minimum standard for the pay and conditions of workers is set:
    • workers are paid a fair wage
    • their conditions are monitored and kept safe
    • the use of safety equipment like goggles and guards is encouraged
    • toxic chemicals that could harm staff are changed
    • the use of sweatshops and child labour is banned