Empowering sustainable choices with product design

November 15, 2022
Illustration of a lightbulb with globe inside, wind turbines, and trees

A common definition of inclusive design is ensuring that products are accessible and usable by people from all backgrounds and abilities. However, truly inclusive design also considers the impact of a product or service on the environment of a user. Choices we make as designers can have a profound impact on the environment and the world we live in. Previously we wrote about some practical steps to design and build websites more sustainably, but today we will focus on the ways product design choices can help reduce a user’s carbon footprint.

Why is this important?

Climate anxiety is widespread - a study published last year found that across 10,000 individuals aged 16 to 25, 75% of participants said the future is frightening. Almost half of the respondents said their thoughts and emotions about climate change negatively impacted their lives, including their ability to eat, sleep, study, concentrate and enjoy their relationships. This is all reinforced by the fact that 80% of news articles describing an IPPC report on climate change employed a catastrophic framing on the future of the planet.

Psychologists have found that overusing fear-inducing imagery creates more fear and shame in people, and interestingly encourages people to be more passive, which counteracts engagement with the image in question. “Threatening messages can capture the public’s attention and create a sense of urgency, leading to a heightened level of concern,” according to Climate Access. “But worry by itself is not an effective motivator for action, as it more often leads to resignation and hopelessness.”

With this in mind, we can try to make design choices in our digital products that empower users by reframing the narrative around sustainable actions to be solutions-based rather than fear-based. Designers can highlight small changes users can make to their lifestyles that have tangible sustainable impacts. For example, reduction of carbon emissions from using an electric vehicle, or reduced water usage from buying a plant based meal over a steak. It’s important to remember there’s no one singular way to tackle climate change. Instead, effectively engaging users on climate change requires careful consideration of how we discuss it.

What does this look like in practice?

There are two categories of products we can touch on here. The first category is made up of products where sustainability is part of their mission, and everything they do is in service of that goal. The second category is made up of products where sustainability is not a core goal, however they have implemented certain sustainable features. Organisations in the latter category are often accused of “greenwashing”, or emphasising sustainable aspects of a product in order to reduce focus on the environmentally damaging aspects. Although this is often true, it is still interesting to look at the design choices in order to learn from them and potentially inform future products.

To start, here are three products who are dedicated to promoting sustainability…

Photo of a hand holding a phone with the Go Jauntly app open

Go Jauntly

We would be remiss not to mention one of the best green products out there (even if we are a bit impartial since we created it), Go Jauntly. Walking is the most environmentally friendly form of active travel but is not frequently talked about or invested in. Go Jauntly looks to tackle that by introducing a range of great features to break down the barriers to walking and encourage active travel and nature connection for wellbeing. The green routes feature allows users to find the greenest, quietest and least polluted route from A-B or plot a nature-filled circular route straight from their doorstep. It encourages making sustainable choices over short-haul drives in a friendly and encouraging way.

Screenshot of Ecosia homepage


It might not seem like it, but every time you input a google search it is using energy. Just a tiny amount but compound that over the 100,000 searches that happen every second and it begins to add up quickly. Google’s data centres around the world use twice as much energy as the entire city of San Francisco. Ecosia seeks to offer an alternative model. They use all of the profit from their search engine to plant trees with organisations around the world, offsetting the carbon footprint from their data centres. It can be easily added as a Chrome plugin and each time you search you can see the increasing count of trees planted because of your actions.

Photo of a hand holding a phone with the olio app open


Olio is a popular app with which users can give away unused food or household items. About 33 to 50% of the food produced globally goes uneaten. Olio is trying to help reduce that staggering figure. With a clean and intuitive interface, the app makes it simple to quickly list an item and communicate with any interested neighbours.

Now, here are three products whose business practices are inherently not very sustainable but they have introduced environmentally-friendly features…

Screenshot of the skyscanner flight booking page


Skyscanner, the flight search engine, recently implemented a feature that displays the ‘Greener Choice’ flights first. These flights have been calculated to have less-than-average CO2 emissions for that particular route due to the type of aircraft and its capacity. Users are also able to filter their search to only display “greener” flights. This in theory empowers users to make more informed choices about their flights and environmental impact, however it is also a good example of greenwashing at work. The most sustainable option would certainly be to not fly at all.

Screenshots of the deliveroo app interface


Food delivery app Deliveroo used to send out disposable cutlery automatically with every order. In order to reduce waste they implemented an opt-in toggle on the checkout page with the accompanying message “Help us reduce plastic waste, only request cutlery when you need it.” Now, users have to take a concrete action in order to receive cutlery and it’s had a significant impact with one restaurant reporting only 10% of customers opt-in. Although this is a positive change, in general the growing trend in hot food delivery services (which rack up significant motorbike carbon emissions and mountains of packaging waste) has a serious negative impact on the environment.

Screenshot of the ocado website delivery schedule page


Similar to Deliveroo, the grocery delivery service Ocado creates a significant environmental impact with its delivery fleet. It is especially inefficient if a delivery van needs to make multiple stops in multiple different areas. In order to help with that, they introduced a feature which highlights the “greenest” time slots for delivery, when they know a van is already scheduled to be in your area. By surfacing that information to the user they are able to make an informed decision and choose the greener option if they wish.

Whether products are good or bad for the environment overall, it is clear that designers are exploring ways in which they can keep users informed of their environmental impact and encourage them to make more sustainable choices. As the global crisis continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how this trend develops and what design choices will be made in future. If you're interested in discussing how we can help make your product more sustainable, get in touch.

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