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What is the role of design in a just transition?

An introduction to the role of design in creating environmental and social justice.

This newsletter was written by Saskia Tykkyläinen and Christine Nikander for a collaboration between Palsa & Pulk and The E-Waste Column. It has been published in both “The Just Transition Newsletter” and “The E-Waste Newsletter”.


What is design?

Design is the process of planning, defining, and shaping the environments in which we live. Everything we interact with has been designed — from the phone in our pocket, to the trains we travel with and the education system we have attended. The design process is used to innovate products and services, as well as for example cities, infrastructures, websites, digital interfaces, and even business strategies. According to the International Council of Design, the design practice focuses on the interaction between a person and the (hu)man-made environment by looking into the “aesthetic, functional, contextual, cultural and societal considerations”.[i] In the design process, it is common to define the challenge or problem that a person — or the user of a given product or service — faces. From there, designers ideate, prototype, and test different solutions to the problem. Design thinking is essentially problem solving.


To create as good of a user experience as possible, the design should factor in the expectations, personal preferences, background, and past experiences of the user. A central aspect of the design process is, therefore, to empathize with the user and actively ask for feedback throughout the process to avoid bias and skewed expectations. While there may be differences in how well a product, service or system succeeds in answering the needs of the user, design decisions have nevertheless been made along the way.


Can design play a role in achieving justice?

In a world where almost everything around us is designed in some shape or form, design matters. How “things” are made and by whom, how they function, what they deliver and fail to deliver, whose interests they serve and exclude, and what short and long-term impacts they have are fundamentally questions of justice. Responsible design can thereby play a role in achieving energy justice, climate justice, environmental justice, and social justice.


Traceability and transparency are key tools for both environmental and social justice. In line with this, designing products with transparent supply chains, and sourcing materials and labour responsibly, can promote justice. Supply chains are known for lacking transparency and supervision on environmentally and socially just practices. It is a generally accepted view that the main purpose of businesses is to maximize profit and shareholder value. Supply chains are often also managed with this mindset, creating a domino effect from one actor to another. Many companies look to source parts and partners with as low costs as possible. Many suppliers provide parts or services with such low costs that it is not possible to cover living — or even minimum — wages to the workers. Natural resources are exploited in oversized manufacturing processes that the natural world and ecosystems cannot sustain in the long run.


A commonly overlooked aspect in the supply chain or impact of a product or service is the role that the early design phase — when the product’s or service’s parts and characteristics are defined — plays. Decisions made in the design phase can have a large impact on the supply chain as a whole, and therewith on environmental and social justice questions. Decisions made in the design phase notably influence inclusion, accessibility, and equality of the products and services that are produced. From an environmental perspective, the design phase is key to “how long something lasts, what it is made of, if it can be repaired, and what happens to it at the end of life”.[ii] Designers are, therefore, in positions of great power and responsibility in defining our surroundings and creating a just world. Design can have a significant impact not just on the goods sold, but also on entire industrial processes and societal systems.


What is the impact of design on environmental justice?

Designing for usability, energy efficiency, reparably, and longevity all have the potential to play a key role in environmental justice. Notably, according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation[iii] and Dr. Natacha Tréhan, an expert in procurement and the circular economy at the University of Grenoble Alpes,[iv] “80% of environmental impact is determined at the design stage”.


The use of resources in products is a design question. The production, packaging, and shipping of goods all create carbon emissions, as does the marketing and obsolescence of products. When it comes to protecting ecosystems, groundwater, and human health, the use of chemicals and water in the production of goods are also particularly relevant questions. Notably, the production of a cotton T-shirt or a pair of cotton jeans requires 2700 and 10850 liters of water respectively.[v] The production of most clothing also uses commercial bleaches and dyes, which can have a negative impact on both the environment and human health.[vi] Water and chemical use are, however, still frequently overlooked when designing goods or services.


When it comes to design features, improving the energy efficiency of products has the potential to play a significant role in the just transition.[vii] For the environment, less is often more. In line with this, products can be designed to use less energy or use energy more efficiently. The reuse of otherwise “lost” or wasted energy, for example by capturing and using heat that is produced as a byproduct, is a good example of this. Notably, less energy consumption can mean less energy needs to be produced, there are lower costs for consumers, and it is better for the planet too.


Key environmental justice questions also arise in the context of waste production. Designing products to break through so-called “planned obsolescence” and destroying new goods that have been designed for only a season creates large quantities of waste.[viii] The waste shipments resulting from fast fashion and masses of textile waste, as well as from our consumption of ever-new electronics and the e-waste this produces, take a toll on the planet and on people.


When looking at supply chains and the design or production process, Digital Product Passports (DPP) are one example of a feature that can be used to make products more sustainable. The aim with DPP is that the end users can be better informed on the materials of a product, and thereby — for example — make better purchasing decisions or recycle the product properly at the end of its lifecycle.[ix] While this is a positive improvement in terms of increasing transparency and accountability in production chains, it will hopefully also pressure businesses and their design departments to truly make more sustainable choices. Examples of brands that have made considerable efforts to improve their supply chain transparency and have also factored this into their design process include Lovia, Fairphone, and Patagonia. Going forward, hopefully, more businesses and designers will take responsibility for the negative impacts brought about through their creations — instead of merely shifting the responsibility on consumers yet again.


What is the impact of design on social justice?

Design considerations, and their social justice implications, play a role in building and maintaining equality. At its core, who products and services are designed for is an equity and access question. Design products are often seen as niche luxury items for wealthy consumers. In the culture of over-consumption, which is widespread in most developed societies, design caters to consumer “needs” such as the desire for an easier, trendier, and more comfortable lifestyle. In addition to high-end products (e.g. personal electronics, luxury furniture, and food-delivery services), this also includes cheaper or single-use products (e.g. ready-made meals, takeaway coffee cups, and fast fashion clothing). Used in this way, design further deepens the division between economic groups and encourages materialistic consumption culture.


Societies contain inequalities and these inequalities, unsurprisingly, are often also reflected in the design decisions made for products, services, and for example public spaces. In most cases women, people of color, disabled people and youth are underrepresented in the decision-making processes. In the EU, 24% of designers were women in 2021[x] and women represented approximately 25% of project managers globally in 2023.[xi] Black people held less than 5% of the design roles in 2021.[xii] This has led to social injustice. For instance, in 2019, car seats and professional equipment were still developed with only male data, and a lot of the design research was conducted with male-only test groups, which then regarded the male mental and physical attributes as the standard human attributes.[xiii]


Broadly speaking, societal wealth structures affect which demographic groups become designers. Wealth structures also affect who the clients and investors of projects are — thus defining the goals, characteristics, and design considerations of projects and products.[xiv] Yet, when these structures and biases are addressed, design can be used to tackle inequalities. An example of how design can be used to protect vulnerable groups can be found in the “Embrace Infant Warmer”. The warmer is a low-cost and portable alternative to neonatal incubators that protects babies born at a low weight or prematurely in rural or remote areas. It was designed — notably by a predominantly female team — to specifically combat infant mortality in less wealthy parts of the world.[xv]


What is the potential for design?

Design has the potential of asking the difficult questions that are needed in order for us to create a just transition. Design and designers thereby hold a great power for creating a more environmentally and socially just future. In today’s world, an “activist” mindset is therefore perhaps also needed for designers.


Designers and project managers can, and should, be the voices for change. Optimally, everyone involved in the design decisions throughout a project would become more aware of, and perhaps also be held more accountable for, the effects and even harms the choices they make may cause. Moreover, the environment and less privileged communities need a voice in the room. While they are currently underrepresented in the decision-making, they are over-represented in places where the most harm through these decisions is caused.


Design has the potential to be used as a tool to shape consumer habits and desires. It is commonly thought that design is only created for a need that consumers already have. While this is a great approach in many cases, making life continuously easier and more effortless in the culture of over-consumption and the comfort of western lifestyles may not be justifiable anymore. To achieve an environmentally and socially just world, over-consuming lifestyles, and the design that comes with it, needs to change. Design and innovation play a key role in this shift.


The next newsletter will explore circular design by highlighting a set of innovative design solutions. If you want to be notified when it comes out, please subscribe to our mailing list.


About the authors

Saskia Tykkyläinen is a freelance sustainability and strategy consultant at Palsa & Pulk. She studied industrial product design and business management. Saskia has extensive experience working with young growth firms and entrepreneurs in accelerator and education programs. In her consultancy work, Saskia takes on projects that design and build sustainable business practices.

Christine Nikander is the founder of the environmental and social sustainability consultancy, Palsa & Pulk. She studied law at the universities of Columbia (New York), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Leiden (the Netherlands). Christine was a member of the Fall 2021 “Design For Social Innovation” cohort at the Columbia Entrepreneurship Design Studio. She has been writing The E-Waste Column weekly since 2022 and focuses on supply chain governance in her work.


About Palsa & Pulk

Palsa & Pulk is an environmental and social sustainability consultancy. It provides compliance, governance, policy, and strategic advice to its clients. Its work is mostly focused on supply chain governance, the just transition, circular economy, and human rights.


About The E-Waste Column

The E-Waste Column is a weekly column about e-waste, transition minerals, and critical raw materials. It touches on a range of topics including ESG, sustainable development, circular economy, EU law and policymaking, corporate social responsibility, the transition to renewable energy, the EU Green Deal, supply chain due diligence and auditing, human environmental rights, business and human rights, climate law, and corporate sustainability.


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