Who Should Read This Book?

I believe that design is how we change the world. Designers are incredibly optimistic people—believing that they can, absolutely, change the world for the better. However, even without a design background or edu­cation, it doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t make change in the world—and change for the better.

This book was written for the designer in all of us. While it is primarily targeted at those who call themselves “designers,” it doesn’t use any design jargon and is just as help­ful to engineers, managers, students, and anyone who wants to build a better, more sustainable world. Whether you are involved with the creation of products, services, on­line experiences, events, environments, or mechanisms that drive systems (like the economy), understanding sustainability is­sues, frameworks, and strategies can help you create better solutions.


This book won’t make you an expert—only experience and time can do that. However, it’s designed to help you get acquainted quickly with state-of-the-art methods in the sustainability domains and to put you far out in front of most of your peers.

What’s in This Book?

This book is a summary of what I feel are the most important approaches and aspects of sustainable design. It doesn’t cover every­thing and it only goes into so much depth. However, it should serve not only as a good introduction, but also help people put sus­tainable design practices into their work, no matter what they do. It is also filled with a number of references and resources that will serve as great next steps as readers decide to explore more.


This book is organized into five main sec­tions: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore, and Process.

These sections contain 15 chapters filled with advice and examples for making better strategies regarding sustainable solutions.

Section 1: Reduce

This section, “Reduce,” focuses on the strat­egies for reducing material and energy im­pacts. It is the first place to start in designing or redesigning anything because reducing these impacts is imperative.

Section 2: Reuse

The two chapters in this section focus on strategies for making solutions (products, services, environments, or mechanisms) last longer and finding other uses when finished.


Section 3: Recycle

Just because something is recyclable, that doesn’t mean it’s actually recycled. There are several strategies for developing prod­ucts to be more easily recycled that both reclaim as much residual value as possible and prevent virgin materials from needlessly being used.

Section 4: Restore

Developing a more sustainable product or service is important, but it’s often not enough. Aside from reducing the impact our activities have on the future, we have a lot of work left in order to correct for the impacts we’ve had in the past. This section describes how we need to rethink systems in order to have positive results, rather than merely reducing our negative results.


Section 5: Process

Once we have an understanding of the strat­egies we can use, we need to understand how to put them into the processes we uti­lize every day. These three chapters describe how easily sustainability can be inserted into processes we already use, how to measure our results, and how to talk to other people about them.

What Comes with This Book?

This book’s companion Web site (ли rosen- feldmedia. com/books/sustainable-design/)

contains pointers to useful sustainable de­sign resources that I’ve found and written.

It includes a calendar of my upcoming talks and a place for you to engage in discussion with others who are interested in sustain­able design. We expect to post information on new sustainable design-related resources and special discounts for related applications as they become available. You can keep up

with the site by subscribing to its RSS feed (ли feeds. rosenfeldmedia. com/sustainable-de- sign/).

We’ve also made the book’s diagrams, screenshots, and other illustrations available under a Creative Commons license for you to download and use in your own presenta­tions. Unfortunately, these don’t include certain images we’ve only received permis­sion to print for copyright reasons (such as the photos of cars or other examples). You’ll find the book’s original illustrations and diagrams in Flickr (ли www. flickr. com/photos/ rosenfeldmedia).

Why a Book and Not Just a PDF?

Any book about sustainability runs the risk of not practicing what it preaches. It’s a fair question to ask why this information is in a book at all—why it requires paper, printing, binding, and transporting to be effective. Why can’t it be distributed and consumed

electronically? The answer is that it could. In fact, it is. This book is available as a downloadable PDF file from m rosenfeldme- dia. com.

Why then a book as well? The answer is simple. In order to be effective, information must fit the needs of its audience. Paper is still so satisfying to most people—and es­pecially designers—who prefer to purchase and read a book. Often, it’s more tangible, and the material seems more real.

In addition, many readers still value physi­cal products more than virtual ones. We still expect virtual products to be free (or mostly so) and physical products to cost something. Although the value of the information con­tained in both is the same, we value each medium differently in both economic and emotional terms. With the actual printed book, you can dog-ear it, write notes, and highlight passages. However, you can store

the digital edition easily on your hard drive and keep it with you everywhere you go, use search and backup features, and share it (but please don’t go crazy or my publisher won’t ask me to write many more books). People can grab a book off a bookshelf, instead of looking for the PDF on a backup drive two years from now.

The sales of each edition will give us valu­able data as to how willing people are to embrace fully-digital publishing and how vi­able it might be to publish without paper in the future. Perhaps our preferences will shift. and books will primarily be electronic fairly soon. This would certainly improve their environmental impact.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is an approach to design and development that focuses on environmental, social, and financial factors that are often never addressed. Sustainable solutions strive to im­prove the many systems that support our lives, including efficiently using capital and markets, effectively using natural resources, and reduc­ing waste and toxins in the environment while not harming people in societies across the Earth. Sustainability focuses on efficient and effective solutions that are better for society, the environment, and companies. Sustain­able organizations are often more successful when they pay attention to the details of waste and impacts, allowing them to function more cleanly, increase profit margins, and differenti­ate themselves from other organizations. See page xxx.


Frequently Asked Questions

Why does being sustainable cost more—or does it?

Sustainable solutions don’t always cost more than unsustainable ones. Many solutions are focused on energy and material efficiency, and these actually cost less up-front. Because our economic system rarely includes all of the social and environmental costs and impacts of products and services of the items we buy, the producers of sustainable solutions try to compensate for these costs. Doing this can cost more up-front, but often costs less over time since these solutions may prevent problems later. See pages 229 and 246.

Is climate change proven?

There is overwhelming evidence of climate change, leaving no doubt that the climate isn’t what it used to be. What’s at issue is whether this change is due to human activity or cyclic conditions in the environment. While there is no unequivocal proof that all of the changes are due to human activity, there is massive overlap


Frequently asked questions

between the evidence of climate change and the details of human activity. The majority of reputable scientists believes that an over­whelming amount of climate change is due to human activity, despite the lack of conclusive proof. For more information, see ля www. cli- matecrisis. net.

What’s a carbon footprint?

One of the most important aspects of climate change seems to be the amount of carbon di­oxide (CO2) accumulating in the upper atmo­sphere. Scientific models explain why this may have an impact on climate change and how serious this is to the environment and our way of life on Earth. One of the most prominent strategies for reversing these effects is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we send into the environment. A carbon footprint is a way of estimating the amount of carbon dioxide our activities generate, and by understanding this, we can find ways to lower these emissions. It represents the total amount of carbon diox-


ide our activities generate—from heating our homes to driving cars to eating and drinking to working and living.

Carbon footprints are difficult to calculate exactly because there are so many variables. However, most carbon footprint calculators do a great job of estimating our personal or cor­porate carbon emissions by using averages. A great place to start estimating your carbon foot­print is the calculator at Al Gore’s Web site: m www. climatecrisis. net.

Are hybrids really better than other cars?

Hybrid cars are certainly not a long-term an­swer. Hybrids are better than hydrogen cars or really big cars (like SUVs), and buying a hy­brid car sends a powerful message to the au­tomobile industry, as well as other companies and government agencies. However, in the long run, smaller gasoline cars are better for the


environment overall, and electric cars are prob­ably the best. See page 134.

Is nuclear power a more sustain­able energy option?

Proponents of nuclear energy point to the re­duced carbon dioxide emissions of generating electricity via nuclear power over traditional methods. But there are many other issues that need to be taken into account, including the amount of CO2 generated in the mining, trans­portation, and refining of uranium, construc­tion of the plants themselves, dealing with the waste over thousands of years, and the abysmal safety record of the nuclear industry with re­gard to workers, miners, and the environment. These additional costs make nuclear power a much weaker investment than spending less money on efficiency technologies and alterna­tive energies, such as solar, wind, wave, hydro, and other renewable sources. see page 52.


What can I do to become more sustainable?

Because sustainability encompasses so many issues across the social, environmental, fi­nancial, and political spectra, there are many things each of us can do to quickly build a more efficient, effective, and sustainable world. We can start by learning about the issues and then evaluating our impacts with carbon foot­print calculators (which is quick and easy to do). Next, we can simply make better choices, starting small, by changing our behaviors to be more sustainable. One of the most important things we can do is simply to be more efficient, using fewer materials and energy in our activi­ties. This might mean wasting less food, not driving when it isn’t necessary, turning lights and electronic equipment off when they’re not being used, insulating our homes to be more efficient, and so on. When we purchase new things, we can look for more efficient versions


Frequently Asked Questions

or ones with higher ratings. Buying locally – produced items is generally more sustainable and helps build resilient local communities. Most of these changes don’t even impact our quality of life much, and most sustainable solu­tions help us do more with less rather than just give us less overall. For more information, see m www. climatecrisis. net/takeaction and trn www. wecansolveit. org/content/action.

As a designer, what can I do to make the world more sustainable?

First, designers can understand the breadth of sustainability and the strategies for developing more sustainable solutions. This is pretty easy (and is covered in this book). Next, designers can start using these strategies in their work, even if only a few at a time. We need to be­come advocates of sustainability issues for our own organizations and our clients, partners, and other stakeholders. We can address sus­tainability issues in our projects whether our


Frequently Asked Questions

clients and organizations appreciate them or not, making more sustainable solutions even when those around us don’t do so.

Over time, designers can address more is­sues and integrate more strategies into their work naturally. This is easiest when all team members are aware of the issues and strate­gies and when sustainability becomes part of the process. Ultimately, sustainability is most powerful when it becomes part of an organiza­tion’s values and mission, but we don’t need to wait for this to begin in order to have an impact now. See page 453.


Frequently asked questions


The word conjures images of effete eccentrics imposing cuboidal-built environments, clash­ing color, tortured fashion, and over rated ce­lebrity upon the jaded palates of urbanites with too much money.

This book is not about that.

Nathan brings the competence of a mechanic, the mind of an engineer, the training of an MBA, and the pen of a poet to a topic long abandoned to people with delusions of ad­equacy. He talks about solutions, ones that deliver desired outcomes, and how to imple­ment them.

His focus is the design of a world that works; as he says, “Don’t do things today that make tomorrow worse.” Good advice.

This book presents a systems approach to crafting answers to the really big challenges, including how to meet human needs on a plan-

et on which all major ecosystems are in decline, and it’s a race to see which will melt first, the Arctic or the economy.

Most of us, if we think about design at all, consider color, or perhaps shape. But reflect that every human artifact was designed by someone. This person made deliberate choices about the utility of the object, the materials used to make it, the manufacturing process chosen, the length of its useful life, and what would happen to it after it was no longer need­ed. Consciously or by choosing to ignore op­portunities, we have created a world in which half a trillion tons of stuff is pulled from the Earth each year, put through various resource­crunching activities, shaped (at great energy cost) into a form, and then thrown away. Of all this stuff, less than one percent is still in use six months after sale. All the rest is waste.

At the moment of conception of an idea, a design, a thought of a product or a process, 80

to 90 percent of the lifetime cost of that widget, program, or pickup truck was committed.

Investing in how designers think, in how we all approach a new idea, is thus crucial if life as we know it is to thrive on this planet.

Nathan has given us the mental model to begin that exploration. He does so with a soft touch, but a ruthless honesty. One of my favorites of his lines is, “Get over the guilt or shock or out­rage or embarrassment or disagreement now, because none of it will be useful. We have a lot of work to do.”

It is almost axiomatic that designers are arro­gant and indulgent. Nathan is not. He deliv­ers an outstanding primer on the precepts of sustainability, the challenges facing the world, and pragmatic answers in a playful and acces­sible manner. This book should be part of any curriculum on design, innovation, business, environmental studies, marketing, public pol­icy, engineering, organizational development,

and the now rapidly emergent field of sustain­ability. It should be on the desk of CEOs of all companies that make or deliver anything. It will be required reading for all of my students, and a frequently recommended treat for the companies with whom I consult.

It should be the next book you buy.

—L. Hunter Lovins Author of Natural Capitalism and Sustainability

Chair, Presidio School of Management

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 2:49 pm