illustration of sustainable design venn diagram
December 6th, 2016

Design for the Common Good (and Profitability)

You may have heard of “the triple bottom line.” It implies that companies should prepare three different bottom line statements. One is the traditional measure of profits. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people” account—a measure of how socially responsible an organization is with its employees, customers, vendors, and community. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account—a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been. These three Ps—profit, people, and planet—make up the triple bottom line (TBL) and measure financial, social, and environmental performance over time. A company that produces a TBL is taking account of all the costs and gains involved in doing business.

Sustainable design can be a major factor in a company’s TBL. Design that is sustainable in the broadest sense is socially responsible, environmentally friendly, values fairness and equality, recognizes the consequences of actions and the interconnection of everything, and, wherever possible, proactively engages social issues. Sustainable design optimizes the needs of people and planet with the desire for innovation, aesthetics, and corporate profits. It is not necessarily charity (although that’s good), but is a professional contribution that plays a part in positive development of the community we all share.

Sustainable design is also profitable! Today, businesses that invest in sustainable design are reaping greater revenue, higher profits, and recruiting more employees. Extensive research shows that Millennials seek to be part of worthy causes, and they care about a brand’s impact on people and the environment. A survey by Net Impact found that 53% of workers said “a job where I can make an impact” was important to their happiness. Beyond that, 35% would take a pay cut to work for a company committed to a social responsibility. In fact, 90% of U.S. consumers say they would switch brands1 to one associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality. And 66% of consumers globally are willing to pay more for sustainable goods.2 So a clear need has been defined, now how can your company fill it?

Sustainable design includes both attitudes and actions—attitudes about how a company approaches design, and specific actions of design and development. Here are six attitudes and actions for mid-sized manufacturers as they consider the impact they have on their communities.

1. Green Design

To be stewards of the environment and lower your environmental footprint, try implementing a Life Cycle Analysis process for product design projects. The American Center for Life Cycle Assessment provides a list of LCA practitioners.3 The Industrial Designers Society of America also has the Okala Guide for sustainable design.4

2. People-First Design

Product designers have long considered themselves “advocates for the end user.” Take advantage of this design aptitude when you develop new products. Use a human-centered design process that starts with the people you are designing for, and ends with solutions that suit their needs. Products, systems, and places designed with this process are better, safer, more enjoyable, more enduring, more livable, provide more enriching experiences, and usually sell more.

3. Responsible Sourcing for Manufacturing

Responsible sourcing is good for the environment by lowering impact, good for people by ensuring fair trade, and good for business as consumers more and more want to know their products come from responsibly managed sources.

4. Social Design

Social Design has two forms. First is making sure the systems used by your employees and networks are designed to be equitable, safe, and enriching. Things like clear statements of inclusion and equality, responsible work hours and vacations, healthy work environments, fair trade sourcing, and employee training moving people from welfare to careers. The second form is outgoing design focused on real world needs, not just wants. This includes contribution of design and engineering efforts within your industry that impact the lives of users in need.

5. Transparency in Design and Communications

Millennials look for transparency when inspecting a company and a brand. They care about how a product is made and its impact on people and the environment. And they expect companies to be open and honest. So, leverage social media to share your processes and product design ideas in an open, authentic way. Explain why you make the decisions you make. Ask consumers about new product ideas and improvements to current product lines.

6. Creating a CSR Policy

Sustaining a business requires profitable growth. A Corporate Social Responsibly Policy (CSR) spells out how your company manages the interconnections of employees, customers, suppliers, community, and environment to make a positive impact on society, while being profitable.

Designing your products and services with a focus on sustainability will help you make the impact you seek while growing your Triple Bottom Line.

For more insights on sustainable design, head over to our Sustainability Resource Portal.


1 Cone Communications / Ebiquity’s 2015 Global CSR Study
2 Nielsen’s The Sustainability Imperative
3 American Center for Life Cycle Assessment
4 Okala Practitioner

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