As an industrial designer with over 25 years experience in the areas of packaging and advertising, I have witnessed many sustainability shifts occurring across the design spectrum. Whether these shifts are being driven by internal or external factors, there is no doubt that the last few decades have ushered in an era of design that is increasingly more nature-focused.  

Some companies decided to explore the development of sustainable alternatives because they saw opportunities, like new market niches, or they predicted future threats, such as the sparse availability of materials. Others were simply pushed by consumer demand. In that case, while it may be difficult to respond to a need that is not inherently aligned with one’s operating standards, the result is a forced paradigm shift not only in a company’s outputs, but also in their ethos – often in record time. 

Take the development of multi-layered materials for example, a frequent trend in packaging design which involves the linkage of multiple different types of materials to form a package structure. Multi-layered materials were designed to achieve maximum performance, ensuring water repellency, humidity control and antimicrobial protection. Yet, although these materials are high-performing, they are also detrimental to the planet. At end-of-life, they cannot be dismantled back to their individual states to be recycled properly and much like everything else, these materials make their way into the global waste stream.

An overview of the circular recycling process with mono-materials.

To respond to this issue, the industry began to explore mono-materials, which have the potential to be both sustainable and scalable. Composed of only a single material or fibre, like glass, paper or fungi, mono-materials are either completely recyclable, compostable or biodegradable. 

Nature being the ultimate material designer, it’s no surprise that many of these emerging materials are made from the building blocks of plants. Some of them are cellulose-based, or made from mycelium and chlorophyll, and have unique properties that we are just starting to discover. The scope of applications for these materials seems immense, and hopefully we are able to fully harness their potential.

Made from the roots of mushrooms, mycelium has become a popular bio-based design material.

Having worked with many brands over the course of my career, from Crest to Garnier and Pantene, these shifts in how we design and what we design with are truly empowering. With these new materials, designers now have the tools to develop consumer products in a more sustainable way.

But looking to nature for inspiration is nothing new – humans have been doing this for millennia. Throughout my travels around the world, I have come to appreciate how many objects of the past are not so different in design from our modern counterparts. The axe, whose basic anatomy has remained more or less unchanged for centuries, is a good example of this. 

Far from this idea of take-make-waste, the fact that ancient civilizations worked in partnership with nature to develop everyday objects is an important lesson and one that should be heeded by all designers, no matter the industry.

François Declos is a senior industrial designer with 30+ years of experience in many industries including packaging, display, product design and advertising. He has won three POPAI awards for some of his POP display designs. In the past, he has worked as a director of industrial design, a design consultant and mentor to young designers. He aims to develop designs that are both sustainable and aesthetic. Currently, François is a senior industrial designer at Cascades, working on innovative and sustainable design.

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