How to be a Sustainable Designer in 2021

How to be a Sustainable Designer in 2021 main article image
Posted on July 29, 2021 by Claudia Cotici

All my life, I have been a minimalist. This has been reflected in my style from day one of my graphic design career. Little did I know, my appreciation for simplicity would be one of the most sustainable and important ways to live in 2021.

My interest in minimalism encouraged me to learn more about climate change, pollution, and sustainability. When I began to learn how our actions are impacting climate change, I started to journey down the road of adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. 

One of the big questions that followed that decision was: How does all this apply to my career as a UX and graphic designer? 

I started to understand that roles in graphic design, for both UX and product designers, are becoming more critical and influential than ever before. 

As a UX designer at heart, I know that I always have to keep the end-user in mind. With climate change happening so fast, it is imperative that we think about nature as the end-user; or at the very least as a user of our products. At the end of the day, everything we create must be geared towards sustainability and be mother-nature approved.

Here are eight of my top tips on how to be a sustainable designer in 2021.

Do not participate in greenwashing

The term greenwashing refers to the practice of advertising eco-friendly attributes, without actually being sustainable overall. In other words, greenwashing is when a company misleads its consumers about the sustainability of the company or its products or services. As a means of claiming sustainability, brands often use greenery and natural images to suggest an eco-friendly aspect of their products.

Consider the implications of participating in these questionable design practices, and if possible, say no to brands who greenwash. The transparency of a business speaks a lot to its ethics and intentions. Having a conversation with potential clients about their sustainable efforts will help you better position yourself as a conscious designer.

One of the most used ways a brand pretends to be sustainable is to use the colour green and visuals of greenery or natural to suggest an eco-friendly aspect of the products. 

Create products that can be fixed, reused, or disassembled

The next time you have the opportunity to create something new, think about how you and your team can make something that can be recycled, fixed, or disassembled. 

While we live in a linear economy, where we do not consider all the life cycles of products and do not care what happens to them when they are no longer needed, we are on track to move toward a circular economy. A circular economy benefits environmental actions against global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and waste management.

The design of new products must support the circular economy by returning to nature, being recycled, repurposed, and restored. By using raw materials from nature, we can produce usable goods for all and can then discard them into the earth. Thus, we will witness a shift from a linear economy to a circular economy. 

Choose to work for sustainable companies

As designers and employees, we can contribute to sustainability by working for companies that are sustainable and eco-friendly or at least consider them. 

I acknowledge that it is a privilege to choose your employer but if you have the means and the freedom, do so. Working for a company that cares about the environment generally means they care about their employees as well. So it’s a win-win. 

By making this small change, we encourage a society with environmental values, leading to a cultural shift in workplaces and discouraging unethical business practices. 

The next time you are interviewing for a job, ask, “Does this company value sustainability? Or What does your company do in regards to the global climate crisis?” 

While this is a good place to start, often a plan or strategy is not enough; look for actions and transparency with the public as well.

Choose eco-friendly dyes 

In design, color is a powerful tool.  Prior to synthesized colors, we had to work with natural colors. Synthetic colors have changed the world of design and textile manufacturing for the better but at the expense of the environment. 

Our waterways are well known for being polluted by synthetic dye factories. Water discharged by textile mills contained chemicals such as formaldehyde, chlorine, lead, and mercury.

Choose recyclable or compostable materials

As a zero-waste adopter, I am aware of the importance of replacing plastic in everyday objects with compostable or at least recyclable materials.

It is up to us, the designers, to design environmentally friendly packages. We have to roll our sleeves and start replacing plastic with anything broken down in nature. It is important to work with what nature gives us.

So, next time you are designing packaging for a product, look at what eco-friendly materials you can use. 

Here is what can make packaging environmentally friendly:

  • The use of 100% recyclable or compostable materials
  • A reduced supply chain and carbon emission responsibility 
  • Reusability to extend its life cycle and usability

Monitor energy consumption

To be a more sustainable designer it is important to monitor your energy conceptions. Many of us utilize technology and tools in order to design which can contribute to significant energy use over time. Consider monitoring your energy use in order to see areas that could be improved. 

Small things such as unplugging equipment at the wall after use, changing settings within devices, or transitioning the design process to a more efficient process can have a large influence. If your team works in a larger facility, consider alternative forms of renewable energy to fuel your power needs. 

Minimize office space and equipment waste

Space can be used as efficiently and effectively as possible to reduce resource usage and ultimately to prevent waste. A smaller space requires less energy to heat and cool and discourages excess materials from piling up. Limiting your workspace will force you to be more mindful of the tools you need. When purchasing new equipment, be sure to switch over to energy-efficient ones. 

In terms of supplies, try to design your materials so that they end up in the printer with the least amount of off-cut and waste. Check to see if you can get the desired impact with the least amount of colour and ink or if past materials can be reused. 

Apply the 5 Rs into your lifestyle

Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Repurpose. Recycle. These are the most simple steps you can take to be sustainable in general. 

Here is how you can apply the 5Rs in your lifestyle as a designer. 


  • Refuse any products you do not need and any tools that are unnecessary. Ask yourself if you need it before you buy it.
  • Reduce the number of things you own and reduce the use of harmful, wasteful, and non-recyclable products. We all know we do not need three monitors. Two are great. Also, when was the last time you entirely used a notepad?
  • Reuse items throughout the workplace instead of buying new ones.
  • Repurpose anything you can. I am repurposing my old computer which got slower in time for the type I am working. Instead of recycling, I will give it to my parents, who only use it for social media or watching movies.
  • Recycle your old hardware and electronics. The best way to do this is to do a quick google search and see what recycling centers are around you. Sometimes, the brands themselves have a recycling program, and it offers some money back.

I hope you are taking sustainability into consideration within your design pursuits. If you have any other ideas of how to be a more sustainable designer, join in the conversation in the comments!

Hey, Claudia here

I am a senior graphic designer, a dog mom, an advocate for a zero-waste lifestyle, climate change, and sustainability. My articles are based on personal experience and well researched to give you the best source of information for all things zero-waste. You can check out my website here

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