Sustainability: Where Do You Start?

Nirvana Material Box Lid Messaging

There’s been so much writing about sustainability that everyone - or at least majority of us in the design industry - are left feeling overwhelmed and on occasion are even more confused than ever. There has been the BoF brand sustainability index, there are resources from EMF, Wrap, CITEO, Sustainable Development Goals, there are a number of calculators such as Higg Index (with all issues surrounding recent controversy how it was used by H&M), Circulytics, MCI, Gabi, CTI to choose from. And so much more could be listed…

So how do we overcome the monumental amount of information available, make sense of it and make it our own by incorporating it into our daily practices so that our to-do list seems achievable, and is not daunting? Lastly, how can multiple departments (e.g., marketing, design, procurement, or sustainability) work together effectively?

Where do we start when everything matters? A systemic approach of breaking information down is key to success.

What can help you is a simple step-by-step process that became a foundation of how we work at Nirvana CPH. These steps break into: Audit, Define, R&D, CMF Design, Prototyping and Production. Let’s dive deeper into each of the steps.

Desk of Design work

1/ Audit

Whether you are an SME or a multi-national brand, the future of more sustainable design lies in the supply chain and material audits. Such approach offers a comprehensive and thorough outlook on where you are now as a brand and there is really no shortcut here that anyone can take.

Every brand needs to take the time to look at each of the items individually; assessing its supply chain, its material origin, its production process, resources consumed in this process, investigate if there are any social implications, understand the end-of-life scenarios for individual elements etc. Herman Miller with its classic Aeron chair environmental product declaration assessment is a good case study for this.

In this notion audit process can break into following sub-steps:

Step 1: Review of current internal and external sustainability ambitions to assess marketing communications strategy and subsequent brand deliverables.

Step2: Collaborate with procurement teams, manufacturers, and producers to conduct a supply chain and material audit to gain an in depth understanding of material flows.

Step 3: Research and review relevant legislation, market, competitors

Step 4: Map all the material flows and critically analyse all the findings to indicate where improvements could be made.

Step 4: Highlight immediate, mid-term and long-term areas of improvement in context of circular economy and sustainable ambitions of the brand set out by CSR/ESG teams.

Key takeaways you can get from this step:

• Supply chain analysis report

• Analysis of current colours, materials, finishes and entire supply chain

• Material checklist for improvements

• Supply chain recommendation improvements

• Relevant legislation update

• Insight reports with trend, market, and competitor analysis

2/ Define

The market is demanding sustainability and a marketing statement is no longer good enough. Defining credible and sensitive messaging is key.

To build a path towards a sustainable future we need to choose renewable resources, which come from place of social and environmental justice, not from illegal activities and not from sources that lack transparency. All this needs to be clearly communicated to a brand’s audience.

This is where the process of ethics, based on which both a brand and their consumers can make their decisions dependably, makes all the difference. But how can we legitimately compare material options?

One of the means is Lifecycle Analysis Assessment (LCA in short). This is an assessment process, unique to every brand and many are in the process of using readily available calculators and data, or establishing their own.

Logitech lends a case study to the latter. To start with, they defined that the most important message to them is carbon footprint. Respectively, they have developed their very own LCA capability with sole goal of reliably quantifying the carbon footprint of the product, from sourcing of raw materials, through to manufacturing, distribution, consumer use and product end of life. By introduction of a Carbon Transparency label, the brand will provide a carbon footprint on the product package.

But, unless we are using the same software and/or methodology for calculating LCAs, the results might not paint a valid comparative data. In this notion, established world-wide standards and certifications can be the place to start.

The reason these offer credible comparison is that they hold strict regulations, based on which company is holding a certification, which get audited and reviewed year on year. These regulations are uniform globally and allow you to compare material producers but also trace your material sources more efficiently. We at Nirvana CPH specialize in advising which certifications will offer best advantages to your brand.

Key takeaways you can get from this step:

• Marketing / PR message by defining key areas of interest

• Demonstration how material checklist can be used for consumer engagement and promotion

• Backbone to your own material / sustainability calculator

• Topic specific terminology explained

• Aligning team knowledge on the topic of sustainability

• Topic specific workshops with workshop collateral

3/ R&D

Research & development of colours, materials and finishes in context of required design functionality and performance is an open-ended inspiration. Depending on the project it utilizes different research and development methodologies.

R&D can offer an investigation into (a) inspirational materials that can through multi-sensory stimulation inform and define creative direction of a project and (b) most sustainable and viable material alternatives to current offering, which can perform the same function.

R&D is especially important these days in context of circular economy. Circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.

R&D is very much about all of the interconnecting companies that form infrastructure of the supply chain coming together. It’s about the raw material, processing, energy, transport and more. It’s generally about rethinking the operating system itself and how it can bring value to the people and the planet at large, while delivering on the parameters set out in the ‘Define’ stage and addressing hot spots identified in ‘Audit’.

The goal of circularity also encourages us to reuse, recycle and most importantly rethink material flows throughout business operations. Research & development practices are the ones that will help achieve and adopt 3R and beyond. To exemplify, R&D can enable reducing the weight of materials and transitioning from one material to another. This is best shown by light-weighting practices across automotive and aviation industries to reduce fuel consumption. And so on.

In R&D stage our Nirvana CPH team can design the framework for your business adopting circular models within you supply chain. In this landscape, an example is a transition to a packaging that lives in a circular loop of customers always returning it to the source. Other opportunity here is replacing heavy weight e-com boxes with cellulosic based soft mailer solutions that are 100% recyclable. It looks and feels premium, while not compromising on durability.

Another area of R&D is the selection of curated materials with relevant colours and finishes, which are ready for implementation into your supply chain. At Nirvana CPH we deliver these in the form of material boxes that serve as inspiration toolkits to the design team, they are a source of relevant information for procurement and marketing, whilst respectively honouring all ESG/CSR goals.

Subsequently, materials curated in the R&D stage illustrate the look and feel of the brand, satisfy sustainable ambitions, are optimised for budgets, legislation, quantities, lead times and so on. This can lead on to custom materials development, which can be best exemplified by Burberry transitioning to paper that uses 40% of coffee cups as recycled fibre source instead the off-the-shelf version which comprises of 20% recycled content.

Key takeaways you can get from this step:

• Material R&D for inspiration or production

• Material moodboards for inspiration or production

• Research into most sustainable and viable materials, colour and finish alternatives relevant to the required function, budget, quantity, lead time, brand look and feel and last but not least sustainable message

• Material samples per routes

• Custom material box

• Custom material labels

• Sample review where needed

• Supplier vetting process recommendation

• Carbon footprint guideline

• Certification recommendations

• Material calculator where required

• Research into relevant technologies (QR, NFC, RFiD, CircularID, blockchain etc.) and understanding how to leverage them in the design stage

• PDF presentation where needed

4/ CMF Design

CMF Design stands for colours, materials and finishes. It is a niche field of expertise within the design industry, which represents a material-driven creative approach.

Everything that surrounds us is made from a material that has a colour and a finish. And any CMF will require a resource to be manufactured from and then produced into shape. This resource can be renewable or non-renewable. This resource can be regenerative or degenerative. This resource can be green to the planet or polluting. Finally, the completed form may have an end-of-life infrastructure or it may not. Furthermore, such infrastructure can be linear, mixed loop or circular.

Looking at the headlines weekly we all notice that the world struggles with an excess of waste, excess of emissions and generally excess of stuff - stuff that was poorly designed in the first place as the creative process didn’t consider the full material lifecycle.

All of this equips the design industry with the power to make a positive or negative impact as many issues we face, as mentioned, stem from poor design of material flows.

This is the gap where CMF expertise can support and help design circular and regenerative future. As a result, the approach in the aforementioned ‘R&D’ stage builds a curated library of materials that can later be used in the CMF design process to create products and brands of tomorrow.

Key takeaways you can get from this step:

• Building brand guidelines for use of selected CMF

• Reduce, improve, consolidate design shapes

• Use relevant materials in your design that address 3Rs and beyond

• CMF Design brainstorming, ideation, design and development fit for prototyping, production and end-of-life infrastructure due to pre-selected, curated materials

5/ Prototyping

Everything we produce will have an impact. It will always be social and environmental.

The Prototyping stage is crucial for ensuring feasibility of ideas through physical samples, as well as estimating real-life impact that is trackable through calculations.

Ensuring feasibility of ideas is a necessary stage that coincides with the CMF design stage. Working in tandem, one validates the other. As a result, when our Creative Production team takes over from the Insight team, everything within the supply chain is already arranged - making it the most seamless and easy transition that guarantees the production effect that was prototyped. Many of our competitors, which tend to adopt a different process, will provide you with samples that are different to a final piece as they likely work with different supply chains for prototyping vs. production.

PANGAIA, one of our clients, is hailed to be one of the most sustainable brands out there and its communication
from brand to consumer shows what transparency can look like.

It successfully incorporates a new calorie counting modelling system, which openly informs the customer of km of driving emissions avoided, days of drinking water saved, and number of t-shirts diverted from landfill. This would not be possible if the brand didn’t implement a material-driven approach (as per our step-by-step guide).

Key takeaways you can get from this step:

• Feasibility to ensure the packaging has a suitable solution

• Packaging tracker with all products mapped out with specific finishes in relation to curated material box

• Seeing designs as plain prototypes and then as fully finished and branded pre-production sample

• Seamless transition to production

Working on M7

6/ Production

When you get here, you (or your procurement team) are all ready to simply press a button watch your project seamlessly transition into the production, meanwhile marketing teams can draft relevant campaigns since messaging has been defined very early on and any design produced would be satisfying ESG/CSR sustainability ambitions of the brand. At Nirvana CPH, taking a greater perspective of the impact of our work not only allows us to make better things and more conscious things, but also more efficient results for partners and clients.

To conclude, this approach – whether you apply just one step or all of them into your process – will ensure an effective multi-department workflow, avoid working in silos and will almost effortlessly deliver on all KPIs your brand needs to transition into a more circular model.

If you'd like to learn more about implementing sustainability into your practices, please get in touch with our team at or head to this page to make an inquiry.

Posted 25 October, 2022 by Katie Kubrak