designing a sustainable future – “read all about it”

13th November 2014

Chris studied and taught product design before working as a product designer at Electrolux. He then moved into sustainability consultancy first for the Dutch giant Philips and then for Jonathan Porritt’s consultancy ‘Forum for the Future’ before returning to product design with the London based agency Seymourpowell.

Chris, you have a broad range of experience in the field of sustainability. What made you decide to go back to working for a product design company?

“I know first-hand that sustainability can be tackled in lots of ways such as better governance and better laws. But what stands out for me in the world of sustainability is that the manufacture and production of man-made products has the single biggest environmental impact on our planet.

“And I was hankering for getting projects off the drawing board and to do that I had to move out of the ‘green world’ of brainstorm flipcharts and back into the world of commercial innovation.”

“There is a huge opportunity for product designers to make a difference because the environmental benefit or harm of a product is ‘locked down’ at the design stage. In my current job I am an integral part of our design team and together we are building sustainability into the design of mainstream products which millions of people consume each and every day. That adds up to billions of products across the planet.”

How does Seymour Powell approach Sustainability? Is it perceived as a burden?

“Sometimes sustainability is seen as a sanction and a burden which can only be managed with regulation and policing. But I see it as an opportunity to reinvent anything and that has to be the most amazing creative opportunity. So I would argue that sustainability is a revolutionary concept. We should embrace it as an inspiration for innovation rather than as a hindrance.”

What would be a good example of your work that illustrates this approach?

“A great example is our ‘Project Recover’ with Akzo Nobel who own Dulux Paints which is the leading brand for decorating paint in many countries around the world. This project brings together a multi-national industrial company and Keith Harrison, an independent chemist with a small company called New Life. Keith has devised a process which turns old paint into new paint called Reborn. His approach is revolutionary because it lowers the raw material cost and can halve the carbon footprint for manufacturing water based emulsion paint. Keith provides waste contractors with a cheaper alternative to landfill or conventional reprocessing.”

“Right now this is a handcrafted process which only deals with a tiny percentage of all the waste paint out there. So Akzo Nobel are employing our expertise to help mechanise and merchandise this ‘New Life’ paint so that the paint industry can replace the traditional life cycle with what we call a closed loop or waste free life cycle.”

“The potential commercial benefits of working with that 15% of paint that is left unused could add up to over £100 million per year just in the UK alone. So this example shows that the initiative of just one individual inventor can potentially result in what we call a ‘systems change’ in a whole industry. To me this shows we can quite literally design a more sustainable world. Designers already sit in a network that can deliver change. It’s all there – the finance, marketing, distribution. ‘Another example is under our feet rather than all over our walls.”

“This example comes courtesy of the remarkable carpet manufacturer ‘Interface’ which here in the UK is based in Clerkenwell, London. In 2013 they launched a new collection in collaboration with Net-Works, an innovative global business and conservation association with the conservation charity the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). This provides Interface with an affordable source of the strongest raw material there is for carpet tiles in the form of ‘end of life’ fishing nets. These are retrieved from the fishing industry across the globe which removes a major threat to marine eco-systems across the world’s beaches and oceans. To find out more click here.”

Does this mean that people, as consumers and business decision-makers, are just as important as the environment in our understanding of sustainability?

“Absolutely. Indeed, one could argue that to achieve sustainability, understanding people is more important than understanding the environment. After all without people there would be no production or consumption. As designers we can make it easier for businesses and consumers to change their behaviour so that humanity and the environment benefit. How quickly we move forward is just down to our motivation and imagination to make the most of this opportunity. That’s why articles and events like yours are so worthwhile right now.”

Can you tell me more about how sustainability relates to people and society?

“It helps in a design context to think of sustainability as a form of ‘social innovation’ and to think of design as being about creating practical solutions to some of the world’s many social and environmental challenges. So ‘social innovation by design’ has become an important aspect of our work. Click here for his article about this for The Guardian.”

Looking ahead what do you think sustainability has in store for us? (Apologies for the pun)

“I would like to highlight two possibilities. Firstly, more and more new products will give us greater ‘social value’. A lovely example is a revolutionary new football called the ‘World Futbol’. This is an example of a product with reciprocity built in so that a single transaction creates an even bigger ‘social value’. It is a new ball design which never needs inflating and will rarely puncture, is guaranteed to be free of child labour in its manufacture, and is sold using a ‘buy-one, give-one to developing countries’ model to send equipment where football can create hope and build communities.”

“Growing ‘social value’ can be accelerated with a concept called ‘reciprocal marketing’ which nurtures the trust between businesses and their customers. This approach is very timely because in the last few years this trust between consumers and businesses has been severely undermined by the use of ‘confusion marketing’ particularly in telecoms and energy markets. We are starting to see a reaction against ‘confusion marketing’ and maybe ‘reciprocal marketing’ can help takes its place.”

“The second possibility is that the ‘open source model’ of product innovation could grow along with sustainable products and businesses. This is where customers (e.g. WordPress bloggers like Good works) are served by collaborative communities of developers. This model has been very successful in software development and it could become adopted more widely, especially where technology is becoming increasingly embedded in our daily lives. This model is also another expression of reciprocity.”

(The final event in the New Year in this series of seven buffet talks on the principles of the Blueprint for Better Business will indeed be on Reciprocity. Ed.)

Is there a danger that sustainability can become too complex, too demanding, to be practical?

“Yes within our own firm I can see first-hand that even our own designers can feel a little overwhelmed by the potential of it all when they are trying to narrow down a solution for a client. So to help us map the way forward for a product we have devised a ‘Sustainability Compass’. This is based on a series of articles I wrote for The Guardian blog on sustainability and it is freely available.”

Click here to see the Sustainability Compass.


Chris, thank you for this tour of an exciting new landscape in design and industry with a peek over the horizon too. It will be interesting to see if the latest innovators in the field of social design like Fair Phone go in the direction you have indicated.

‘Perhaps phrases like ‘cool design’ will evolve in new and exciting ways that we can only imagine.’



Click on the web links below to see Good Work’s sustainability event on 15 October 2014 and a related campaign by our co-host CAFOD the aid agency.

Good works is co-hosting a buffet talk on Sustainability with CAFOD at Romero House on Westminster Bridge Road in central London.

This event ties in with the launch this month of CAFOD’s new ‘Just One World’ campaign on sustainability


Interview by Nick Franchini, Good Works