Designing for Sustainability – Glossary

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – Updated: December 1, 2011


The following glossary collects terms from the area of design for sustainability and to some degree from sustainability itself. It focuses on the articles in this highlight edition. The majority of the definitions were taken from Nathan Shedroff's 2009 book, Design is the Problem, many others are citations from various Wikipedia articles.



Approaches to Sustainability

See Frameworks for Sustainability



See Biomimicry


Wikipedia Definition

Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems. The term biomimicry and biomimetics come from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. Other terms often used are bionics, bio-inspiration, and biognosis.

The term biomimicry appeared as early as 1982. It was popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Biomimicry is defined in her book as a "new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems". Benyus suggests looking to nature as a "model, measure, and mentor" and emphasizes sustainability as an objective of biomimicry. (Wikipedia, adapted)

Biomimicry as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

Like the Cradle to Cradle perspective, biomimicry takes its inspiration from natural processes. Promoted by Janine Benyus, biomimicry is not so much a framework as it is an approach to re-imagining the design and development process. It is a perspective that searches for new ways of creating sustainable materials, products, services, and other solutions by learning how nature already works.

  • Strengths: Inspirational. Focused on nature's accomplishments as both model and source of solutions.
  • Weaknesses: Incomplete, subjective metrics. The Design Spiral is a powerful procedural approach but is better at integrating into traditional development processes rather than replacing them.

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)


Cradle to Cradle, Cradle 2 Cradle, C2C

Wikipedia Definition

Cradle to Cradle Design (sometimes abbreviated to C2C, or Cradle 2 Cradle, or in some circles referred to as regenerative) is a biomimetic approach to the design of systems. It models human industry on nature's processes in which materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature's biological metabolism while also maintaining safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and synthetic materials. Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not just efficient but essentially waste free. The model in its broadest sense is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing; it can be applied to many different aspects of human civilization such as urban environments, buildings, economics, and social systems. (Wikipedia, adapted)

Cradle to Cradle as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

Also known as eco-effectiveness, Cradle to Cradle, or C2C, is a popular framework that demands significant change, for good reason, but represents a high bar to reach for most organizations. It is a powerful perspective on the cyclic nature of waste and food, as well as the need to keep technical and biological materials separated. Great strides have been made under the C2C framework, but it takes commitment and support from the highest levels of an organization to achieve. A new, accompanying certification includes more detailed criteria.

  • Strengths: Business-relevant and friendly. Integrates well with design and business functions. Easy to address in the development process. Easily combined with other frameworks.
  • Weaknesses: Not deeply detailed and does not
    • Cover financial or social issues
    • Propose metrics
    • Describe a development process
    • Favor natural or organic materials and can be biased toward technological solutions
    • Explicitly value local production, transportation, product life span, or embodied energy of components

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)



Reduction of the amount of materials and energy used in a design solution.

According to Shedroff (2009), "anything developers can do to reduce the amount of materials and energy in a solution will reduce – sometimes dramatically – the impact it has on resources and the environment. Systematic reduction of toxic materials, careful engineering to reduce product size and weight, and reduction of waste and energy in the manufacturing process (where 80–90 percent of a product's impact often occurs) can make a tremendous improvement in a solution's sustainability. These gains compound as well. For example, a lighter product improves fuel efficiency and reduces waste exhaust everywhere it travels (if it's shipped, trucked, or driven). Some solutions actually dematerialize other products. What's helpful about this approach is that, most of the time, reducing the materials and energy required to make and maintain products and services often reduces their costs. Therefore, this design technique directly benefits businesses and the environment, which makes for an easy sell to even the most narrow-minded business people." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)

Design for Use

Ensuring that the things that are designed are usable.

According to Shedroff, "one of the most important and seemingly simple design principles developers can employ is to make sure that the things they design are usable. Not only does this increase the likelihood that customers will prefer to buy their solutions, it also increases the likelihood that, once they do, these solutions will actually be used, instead of discarded for something else that might work better. Most people have been in this situation themselves, where they purchased something only to find out it didn't fit their needs and they had to go find a substitute. Two or more solutions created to solve one problem is not a strategy for sustainability. Therefore, the more effective one's solution is, for those for whom it is intended, the more likely that it will be used." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)

Disassembly, Design for Disassembly

Designing products so that they can be easily disassembled into component parts and separated by material.



See Cradle to Cradle


See Natural Capitalism

Effectiveness, Design for Effectiveness (in contrast to Design for Efficiency)

Shedroff (2009) uses the term "design for effectiveness" in contrast to "design for efficiency" and means with "effectiveness" the concept of "eco-effectiveness" as it is used in the Cradle to Cradle framework.

According to Shedroff, "design for efficiency" delivers "radically more efficient instances of current solutions, whereas "design for effectiveness" considers "solutions that look at challenges in a completely new way and deliver more effective value." For example, "instead of reconsidering what the car, phone, kitchen, or office of the future might be, we need to question what transportation, communications, family, food, and work are all about and how these might change in the context of social, environmental, and market systems to be more sustainable and fulfilling." Thus, effective solutions also "require a different type of understanding. Not only are we called to rethink and reframe the need and solution, but we also need to reconsider the boundaries of what we consider the solution itself to be."


Frameworks for Sustainability

Approaches, or conceptual frameworks, to sustainability. Shedroff covers the following frameworks for sustainability in his 2009 book, Design in the Problem:

For explanations of the respective frameworks, follow the links.

Shedroff (2009) combines these frameworks into a summary framework.

I, J


Transmitting the information about a physical object instead of the object itself, which is replicated at the destination with the help of the information.

According to Shedroff (2009), "informationalization is all about sending the message, the recipe, the data, whenever and wherever the physical thing itself can be replicated at the destination." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem)


Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)

Life Cycle Analysis as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

According to Shedroff (2009), the most exacting and accurate framework for assessing solutions is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), an entirely quantitative approach. There are several variations of LCA tools, but conceptually they are largely the same. LCAs are usually expensive, time-consuming, and difficult (if not impossible) to perform, but they deliver the most accurate and useful evaluation of materials and energy use.

  • Strengths: Comprehensive. Objective is easier to measure for existing products and services, rather than for proposed ones.
  • Weaknesses: Does not adequately address financial or social analyses. Difficult, time-consuming, and costly to perform. Most of the data needed for adequate evaluations are not available from organizations. Cannot be adequately performed in the design and prototype stages of development.

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)


In the context of sustainability, localization refers to the local production and consumption of products and services.

Shedroff (2009) states that "to whatever extent the products and services you develop can reduce the transportation necessary to distribute, service, and dispose of them, the fewer emissions and other impacts will be generated." But he also warns that localization can have unintended consequences that are not always intuitive (he addresses these issues in his book). (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)


Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

Also known as eco-efficiency, the Natural Capitalism framework was developed by Paul Hawking, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, according to Shedroff (2009) three luminaries of sustainability and is described in detail in their influential book from 2002, Natural Capitalism. Natural Capitalism is a framework for rethinking the value of social and natural resources in the context of business. Easy to understand, it creates a quick foundation for understanding the value of sustainability and the new perspectives around sustainable design and development.

  • Strengths: Clear, simple model of capital and value. Covers social, environmental, and financial issues. Business-relevant and friendly. Integrates well with design and business functions. Easy to address in the development process. Easily combined with other frameworks.
  • Weaknesses: Does not describe a development process. Not deeply detailed.

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted)


Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle means: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


In Shedroff's (2009) scheme, process refers to "how sustainability can be inserted into existing development processes, how to measure results (based on various measures, including some of the frameworks for sustainability), and how to communicate them." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).

Persuasion Design

Persuasion design complements more traditional design categories like information design, information architecture, information design, instruction design, interaction design, user experience design, and usability. It is for those who want to improve their marketing and sales messages by analyzing their verbal content, using established psychological research methodologies. Controlling just the message, apart from graphic design, can lead to significantly higher sales conversion rates. (From persuasion, adapted)

Persuasive Design/Technology

Wikipedia Definition

Persuasive technology is broadly defined as technology that is designed to change attitudes or behaviors of the users through persuasion and social influence, but not through coercion (Fogg 2002). Such technologies are regularly used in sales, diplomacy, politics, religion, military training, public health, and management, and may potentially be used in any area of human-human or human-computer interaction. Most self-identified persuasive technology research focuses on interactive, computational technologies, including desktop computers, Internet services, video games, and mobile devices (Oinas-Kukkonen et al. 2008), but this incorporates and builds on the results, theories, and methods of experimental psychology, rhetoric (Bogost 2007), and human-computer interaction. The design of persuasive technologies can be seen as a particular case of design with intent (Lockton et al. 2010). (Wikipedia, adapted)

From UIE Website

Persuasive design is not about manipulating users into doing something they don't want to do. Instead, the goal of persuasive design is to get users to make the right decision. Designers can accomplish this by doing their best to ensure that users get all of their questions answered about the content. (From UIE Website, interview of Andrew Chak by Christine Perfetti, adapted).


Persuasive design/technology is used to "nudge users into the right direction", that is, toward a desired behavior. In the context of sustainability, this is a more sustainable behavior.

Examples: Saving electricity, buying fair trade products, using the stairs instead of the lift, sharing cars, using bicycles or public transportation instead of cars, etc.



In Shedroff's (2009) scheme, recycle refers to "strategies for easier product recycling, such as design for disassembly, how to close input (resources) and output (wastes) streams so that nothing is wasted and that everything is recycled (close the loop), and design for effectiveness." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


In Shedroff's (2009) scheme, reduce refers to "strategies for reducing material and energy impacts: design for use, dematerialization, substitution, localization, transmaterialization (or servicing: the process of turning a product into a service), and informationalization (sending the information instead of the product)." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


See Cradle to Cradle


In Shedroff's (2009) scheme, restore refers to "the need to rethink systems in order to gain positive results, rather than merely reduce negative results." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


In Shedroff's (2009) scheme, reuse refers to "strategies for making solutions last longer and finding other uses when product use has finished." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).



According to Shedroff (2009), a simple definition of a service would be: "A solution to fulfill needs." He continues: "The concentration here is on filling needs (and desires) without presupposing a physical product. Even when a product is required, who owns it and how it is used is at the heart of a service solution. To create services effectively, service providers must focus on customer value as an end solution. The aim is to deliver high value (whether in terms of price, performance, emotions, values, or meanings) in customer terms, not merely the terms of the manufacturer. In addition, a priority is often placed on creating and maintaining a deeper customer relationship than is often the case with product manufacturers." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


See Transmaterialization

Social Return on Investment (SROI)

Social Return on Investment as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

Social Return on Investment (SROI) strategies attempt to measure social-economic impacts like LCAs measure environmental impacts. This is a very new approach, and there are no still no standards or agreement about how best to do this. It also suffers the challenge of which social issues to measure, since any list will likely be different for each individual or group.

  • Strengths: Describes an approach to valuing social issues within a financial framework. Open to interpreting approach for specific conditions.
  • Weaknesses: Controversy over defining of social value in financial terms. No set template for developers to follow. Subjective.

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


Substitution of materials or energy with materials or energy that are more sustainable with respect to various characteristics (weight, toxicity, energy or resources consumption, etc.)

According to Shedroff, this can be "material or energy substitution (the latter is not covered by Shedroff). Often, more sustainable materials can be substituted for less sustainable or even toxic ones without much disruption in the manufacturing process. Sometimes, these materials can also lead to energy, resource, and time savings, as well as reduced liability and risk. However, not all materials can be replaced, particularly in electronic components. Also, different materials will have differing performance and may introduce new issues that affect quality, reliability, and manufacturing. So designers need to work closely with engineers and others in the manufacturing process to be sure that their choices are making improvements everywhere and not merely passing problems from one area to another." (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


General definition of sustainability from the Brundland Commission (1987):

  • (Use and) development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Or as Shedroff (2009) puts it more simply:

  • Don't do things today that make tomorrow worse.

Shedroff adds that "an even deeper meaning to sustainability points to the need to restore natural, social, and economic systems (and the effect they have had on society, nature, and markets), and not merely 'fix' them to make them perform better". (From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).

Sustainability Helix

Sustainability Helix as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

The Sustainability Helix is the result of collaboration between Natural Capital and students from the Presidio School of Management. It is a framework for evaluating overall organizational commitment and progress in sustainability. Unlike many frameworks, it is decidedly business-positive, and it describes a clear path from wherever an organization might score initially toward greater sustainable development, processes, and strategy.

  • Strengths: Business-positive and not moralizing. Neutral assessment of position along a spectrum. Promotes and contextualizes restoration, not merely sustainability. Integrates business functions throughout an organization and promotes involvement and cooperation of these over time.
  • Weaknesses: Lacks metrics for measurement. Subjective.

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).

Systems Perspective

Discussing and comprehending the relationship between design and sustainability requires a systems perspective to see these relationships clearly. According to Shedroff (2009), taking such a perspective means acknowledging that "the system is the sum total of everything affected by an activity". It "requires an appreciation (at a minimum) and an understanding (at best) of how various systems interact with each other. These include environmental, financial, and social systems" (for example, markets, ecosystems, social systems, or the entire world). Designers are just one group of "players" in the challenging endeavor to take action towards a sustainable future, although, in Shedroff's eyes, they are indeed an important one.


The Natural Step™

The Natural Step™ as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

The Natural Step is a framework promoted by an international organization that proposes four fundamental system conditions to help stabilize the global biosphere. This approach is general, and the ecological and economic benefits of the Natural Step are often difficult to measure (which isn't so different than many of the other frameworks).

  • Strengths: A development and business-positive approach seeking to help organizations make better choices.
  • Weaknesses: No formal techniques to use for either evaluation or development. Subjective.

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).

Total Beauty

Total Beauty as a Framework for Sustainability (Shedroff)

Created by Edwin Datcheski to redefine the concept of what is "beautiful," Total Beauty is a quantitative framework that offers a point system to calculate total impact of products and services in environmental terms.

  • Strengths: Easy process for designers to use. Can be used in the design process, as well as to evaluate existing products. Provides a fast assessment that is (relatively) easy to use. Favors specific materials, including natural and organic materials, by embodied energy, over technical materials (which biases against products, such as electronics).
  • Weaknesses: Subjective. Incomplete (not detailed). Social issues are left incomplete. Complex products naturally have lower scores than simple products (which may not be an accurate assessment, considering a product's performance or functions).

(From Nathan Shedroff, Design is the Problem, adapted).


According to Shedroff (2009), "transmaterialization (also called servicing) is the process of turning a product into a service."

Examples: Online music stores, car rental and sharing, ...



Waste (also known as rubbish, trash, refuse, garbage, junk, litter, and ort) is unwanted or useless materials. In biology, waste is any of the many unwanted substances or toxins that are expelled from living organisms, metabolic waste; such as urea, sweat or feces. Litter is waste which has been disposed of improperly. Feces contain large quantities of fresh and soft texturized waste products.

Waste is directly linked to human development, both technologically and socially. The compositions of different wastes have varied over time and location, with industrial development and innovation being directly linked to waste materials. An example of this includes plastics and nuclear technology. Some components of waste have economical value and can be recycled once correctly recovered.

Waste is sometimes a subjective concept, because items that some people discard may have value to others. It is widely recognized that waste materials are a valuable resource, whilst there is debate as to how this value is best realized. Such concepts are colloquially expressed in Western culture by such idioms as "One man's trash is another man's treasure." (From Wikipedia)

Side remark from Shedroff (2009): The idea behind eco-effectiveness (Cradle to Cradle) is not only to eliminate waste but also to eliminate the concept of waste.





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