Sustainable Design in History, Theory, and Business Practices

History of Awareness and Activism


Before addressing current sustainable design, we must address the beginnings of this social movement and environmental activism. Throughout the 1900s, many issues such as AIDS, politics, war, and social justice became prominent. The amount of attention payed towards environmental issues fluctuated greatly. The 70s were a very revolutionary time for the environmental crisis. Commercials stating “Give a Hoot; Don’t Pollute” and posters were advertised nationwide[1]. The public began to see a rise in advertisement towards this cause. As seen in this period of time, corporations took initiative to reach a larger target audience regarding this issue through television. This reflects business operations performed today to advocate environmental action, which will be further discussed in this article.

Robert Rauschenberg
Earth Day, 1970
Robert Leydenfrost (Designer)
Don Brewster (Photgrapher)
Earth Day, 1970

In addition to a rise in advertisements, Earth Day was established in response to the oil spill off the coast of Southern California in 1969 and depleting environmental resources. With this came the creation of posters advocating this new holiday. A variation of messages with tones of patriotic and hopeful, as well as cryptic were conveyed through designers of the time. A sense of urgency is greatly created by bold font and the cryptic imagery of a gas mask on the right, which displays one method of getting the attention of the public. Another approach, with a more patriotic message, is shown on the left. The patriotic approach, brings a more hopeful message to Earth Day and pushes people to unify together and fight the cause. Though these posters shown were designed as part of the booming first Earth day campaign in the 70s, the issue was commonly overlooked in the latter half of the 1900s by other social issues such as the equal rights of women and the antiwar movement with President Nixon[2]. Other issues such as the economic crisis under Reagans presidency shared the spotlight.


It wasn’t until the 90s that there was a large resurgence of the focus on sustainability. In 1992, the UN held the Earth Summit, which allowed states and countries to take collaborative action on these issues. As we moved into the late 1990s and early 2000s, oil spills during the Persian War, the Iraq War, and as well as numerous hurricanes raised issues of environmental stability[3]. All of these issues were made known to the public through organizational action, advertisement, social reform. This leads us to how we handle the crisis through effective design today and can have sustainable practices in the future.


Theory of Backwards Design

An essential part of sustainable design practices is the methodology behind the process itself. A publication I will first be talking about is Green Graphic Design. Green Graphic Design is written by Celery Design Collaborative and Brian Dougherty. As for a small background of the company, Celery Design Collaborative collaborates specifically with designers who want to work greener and more environmentally effective[4]. In the book, Dougherty discusses the theory behind designing backwards to conduct a sustainable practice. “Backwards Design” is fundamentally a teaching strategy for design students, but Dougherty adapted this method to the topic of sustainability. In this theory, he explains how designers must start from the end (thinking about the final product and its material to its disposal) rather than the beginning when carrying out their thought process[5]. Thinking about the end product will allow designers to consider the practicality, functionality, and “afterlife” of the product, which allows them to be more aware of their decisions regarding production, energy use, and collaboration with other businesses. Both the life of a product and manufacturing are considered completely. With this, companies and designers can come up with alternative ways to reach their solutions that will be better for the environment in the long-run.


This perspective is also shared and elaborated on through professionals that work in fields alongside designers. In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braun art speak more in depth about the disposal and end of life for a product. An important point they make is how our dependence on solely reducing, reusing, and recycling will not be enough to fight the cause[6]. They state that a product should work in a “closed-loop cycle”, in which they “provide nourishment for other living things”[7]. This means that a product should be able to give back to the environment in its disposal and in theory allow growth of the environment which we took from. This specific method, known as Cradle-to-Cradle design, dives deeper into a product giving back to the environment rather than recycling at the end.

Combining these two methods of sustainable design will allow us to still dispose of items, but with a more environmentally friendly purpose. At the same time, we can also continue to promote the trend of using renewable materials. In this case, we get the best of both worlds. Cradle-to-Cradle design can be seen to have a direct correlation to Brian Dougherty’s discussion of designing backwards. They provoke further thought on the methods we can utilize to combat the issue of sustainability. As you can see, it is vital that fields that collaborate with designers must also be educated on renewable practices. Collaboration is a large part of design as a whole and can establish new, unthought of ideas. The fight for a cause becomes stronger and more impactful when action is carried out by groups of people. This brings us to look at the larger picture: how entire companies operate on sustainable design.


Conducting a Sustainable Business

I want to start off with talking about a business owner who we had the pleasure to interview, Tim Cureton. Tim Cureton is an owner of a successful, local coffee roasters in my hometown. Prior to starting his coffee shop, he was in the Peace Corps in Micronesia. His business, RiseUp Coffee Roasters, started from a small trailer. He co-founded the business with Abby West, and Noah Kegley joined the team as Head Roaster in 2010. It quickly evolved into a business located in a repurposed gas station from the 1920s. In the beginning of the interview, we spoke to Tim about the core values his company was built on and how he has upheld his values.


When talking about the start of his company he states, “While I was there in the Pacific I got too visit coffee growing regions there. And for the very first time I got to see coffee as this agricultural crop that connects cultures and people and places. In that time, I just consumed coffee with heaps of cream and sugar and never really considered how it was grown and how it got the cup I was drinking. From the very first day, every single bean we have roasted, brewed, and served has been both certified fair trade and organic.”


In regards to sustainability in the beginning and his business inspiration he says “So sustainability, this goes back to 2005, at that time it was a very different place. I would have legitimate questions of people asking me what organic means. Sustainability was something talked about by very few people. One of my heroes of business is Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia). [His book] became my bible in business.” Tim goes on to state his business “-is a way to make a living, but at the same time, the key word is living”- Truly when you take a look at that [“Grown by Friends, Roasted by Friends, Enjoyed by Friends”], I think that typical nature of friendship is sustainable as well. Our farmers where we get our ingredients from are our friends. They are third fourth generation coffee farmers. We are so appreciative.” This brings us back to concept of collaboration talked about before with Dougherty, McDonough, and Braun. Without reaching out to these multi-generation farmers, Tim would not be able to carry out the sustainable practice he wanted his company to be based off of. Working together does not only help the business owner, but the community and families the resources come from as well.Another company that practices sustainability adamantly is Patagonia. As stated before, Tim Cureton took a great amount of inspiration from this business and it is very clear why he did. Patagonia, as we know it, is an outdoor clothing company based on the idea of supporting a sustainable lifestyle. The company actually started as a small mountain climbing piton supplier run by a single person, Yvon Chouinard. Yvon Chouinard was a mountain climber and nature enthusiast who found interest in the idea of reusable hardware for the sport. The foundation of Patagonia rested on the idea of people participating in “silent sports”, which are sports that required no emissions and purely interacted with the environment. His business started in 1957 and demand rose greatly by 1965. He partnered with Tom Frost, and aeronautical engineer who could help further improve the design of Chouinard’s product.


One thing that I observed was that the idea of partnership and collaboration within the start of the Patagonia company directly reflects the idea of “friendship” Tim Cureton bases his company off of (as stated above). Collaboration was a common theme I found when researching these companies. This only gives more support that it is a key aspect of sustainable practices.


The beginning of Patagonia had its minor challenges and conflicts with the environmental agenda, but what sets this business apart from many today was the owners’ consideration to these minor issues. In the early development of their climbing tools, the owners realized that their hammered-in pitons damaged the rock. They then changed their product to aluminum chocks that would be non-destructive. The company made additional changes overtime in their material used, such as moving towards using recycled polyester, hemp, and organic cotton[8]. As they grew, they considered using solar energy for their buildings and radiant heating (having a goal of 100% renewable energy use). Patagonia continues to take full consideration into the environment they build in as well and how their construction affects waterways, species, and ecosystems. In their building principles they even include that their building materials should be from reused or scrap material when possible[9]. Patagonia clearly sticks to the process of backwards design.

Sustainability in business does not only refer to the way in which products are manufactured and the production. It also refers to the way in which the public becomes actively involved. For example, Patagonia also hosts instructional programs in locations such as the Utah and the North Cascades Mountains[10]. With this, the consumers can create a closer relationship to the issue these brands are trying to promote and have a more personal connection to them. This in return provokes more people to become consistently involved.


Even though I just focused greatly on a larger corporation, the efforts of smaller companies also make a huge impact and should not be overlooked. Companies such as BMW, with their efforts of reducing emissions and being one of the first appointed Environmental Officers in the World has shown their involvement for over 40 years[11]. 4Ocean, the recycled bracelet company that focuses on cleaning pollution from the sea, removes a pound of trash for each bracelet sold (Which collectively makes a huge impact on the amount of pollution cleared from water sources)[12]. Reformation, a growing clothing company, began by selling reworked thrift pieces and now focuses on putting their data (such as C02 emissions, waste production, and material use) on the tags of every clothing item[13]. Overall, no matter how large the company, one can see that the smallest consideration to community, collaboration, and each step of a product’s life can be the beginning step towards going green.


In conclusion, business operations tend to be greatly overlooked as an aspect of sustainable design. Often, people look at what products are made of and the end result rather than the inside workings of an eco-friendly company. Sustainable design is not only a practice. It is a mindset. As seen through these businesses and business leaders, activism towards sustainability can be taken in the smallest steps but make the most impact in the long run. Seeing how companies use backwards design and considering the small impacts you could make are important to know as a consumer of these businesses.

[1] Renee Lee and Kristen Starling, “US Forest Service Symbol Woodsy Owl Turns 40,” USDA, February 21, 2017,


[2] Editors, “The 1970s,” (A&E Television Networks, July 30, 2010),




[4] “Celery Design Collaborative,” Celery Design Collaborative, accessed November 28, 2019,


[5] Brian Dougherty, Green Graphic Design (New York: Allworth Press, 2009))


[6] William McDonough, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” Google Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 1, 2010),


[7] “Sustainability,” Ethics in Graphic Design RSS, accessed November 28, 2019,


[8] “History of Patagonia – A Company Created by Yvon Chouinard,” History of Patagonia – A Company Created by Yvon Chouinard, accessed November 28, 2019,


[9] “Patagonia Building Principles” Patagonia, Inc. Accessed November 27, 2019,

[10] “Pataguides® Recommended Guide Services,” Patagonia, accessed November 28, 2019,


[11] Kayla.mcphail, “4 Companies That Define Sustainable Practices,” The University of Scranton Online, August 1, 2019,


[12] “4Ocean,” 4ocean is Actively Cleaning our Oceans and Coastlines, accessed November 28, 2019,


[13] “Sustainable Practices,” Reformation, accessed November 28, 2019,



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