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Elisabet Elfa of Patagonia on sustainable fashion design

Interview with Patagonia's Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir on Sustainable Design - Part Two

As social commitment is a matter of heart at iF, with the SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE and the iF DESIGN TALENT AWARD, we wanted to know more about sustainable design. In the interview below, with iF juror and designer at outdoor outfitter Patagonia Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir, the young designer gives insight into her design philosophy and work and explains how designers put emphasis on sustainability. This is Part Two of Two. Read Part One here.

Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir, Patagonia, Ventura, CA, United States

Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir, Patagonia, Ventura, CA, United States

Elísabet Elfa is a designer at Patagonia. Her design aspirations go beyond creating a perfect product to encompass its minimal or even positive impact in terms of sustainability. Elísabet completed her studies in 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in Sustainable Fashion Design at the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology and spent the first six years of her career as a member of the Fjällräven design team. Her products have won numerous international awards, for example as the overall winner and recipient of the sustainability award at the Scandinavian Outdoor Awards, the ISPO Award for Outer Down Layer and Best Backpacking Equipment of the Year by Backpacker Magazine. Alongside her other work, Elísabet was involved in the design and development module of the so-called Higg Index, a web-based tool for teaching and evaluating products with regard to various environmental factors.

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In the iF DESIGN AWARD 2020, and in comparison to the last years, we noticed an exponential growth in sustainable products, but especially in packaging. Is it just a reaction to a growing awareness among customers? Or are all companies slowly changing their mindsets and philosophies? What do you think?

Growing awareness among customers is absolutely a factor, so is the growing awareness in government and business owners. Any business owner that wants to be in business 50 or 100 years from now realizes that for the long-term health of their business the planet needs to be healthy. It is my sincere hope and wish that the iF Awards can fuel the creation of sustainable design by adding sustainability to their evaluation criteria for their awards 2021.

But it is not just the companies and manufacturers. It seems like the majority of young designers has this ‘sustainable mindset’ when creating. Do you also notice this trends and awareness among other colleagues?

I have been incredibly fortunate to work with brands that put sustainability at the core of their business and see it as their duty to do the right thing. That also means I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by likeminded people that see the urgency in respecting the resources of the planet.

I think what older generations believed to be a trend was not a trend at all, but the spread of an idea according the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. A sort of a modern-day path of enlightenment. First came the innovators with the release of the Limits to Growth in 1972 where they addressed issues of an exponentially growing population and a raised global standard of living and the limit of the planet’s resources. The traction of the idea was slow, and it is in the 90s/00s that early adopters understood that going about business as usual would bring about a catastrophic future for coming generations and earth’s possibility to support life as we know it. To borrow the words of Macron “Let’s face it there is no planet B” and without a planet there is no business. In other words, the early adopters understood that it was in the interest of every business, government and individual to do what we can to steer away from a dystopian future. 

Today I think we have reached the tipping point, from early adopters to early majority and we will soon have the majority of the population on board with changing our ways. The Fridays for Future movement led by Greta Thunberg has been a driving force and has reached not just young individuals but the leaders in government. I believe the fuel behind the change now is that as my generation, and the ones behind, have realized that we are the children that are tasked with cleaning up after a party we did not throw and has lasted over 50 yeas and which has changed the conditions for all life as we’ve known it for the past 10,000 years. It is thanks to the integrity of the innovators and early adopters that we have heard their message and react with urgency as this affects our future lives directly.

Sustainable Design on a New Level: iF DESIGN AWARD 2020

Grace of Waste raises awareness that waste is not garbage but a valuable raw material. The company has developed a nourishing beauty product made from commonplace coffee grounds. The product has been formulated to help stressed people balance, detoxify and restore their energy. This is a premium Christmas gift that convincingly translates the topic of sustainability in myriad ways: the paper is recyclable and consists of discarded coffee cups. The text on the package front is printed with embossing and cut-outs, which minimizes the use of printing ink.
Grace of Waste / Health and beauty packaging, iF DESIGN AWARD 2020

Grace of Waste raises awareness that waste is not garbage but a valuable raw material. The company has developed a nourishing beauty product made from commonplace coffee grounds. The product has been formulated to help stressed people balance, detoxify and restore their energy. This is a premium Christmas gift that convincingly translates the topic of sustainability in myriad ways: the paper is recyclable and consists of discarded coffee cups. The text on the package front is printed with embossing and cut-outs, which minimizes the use of printing ink.

25,000 hectares of farmland were contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Environmental specialists from METER Group developed a sustainable decontamination method that allowed local farmers to safely grow rice again on this land. However, consumers were not convinced, and sales of the rice were poor. Made in Fukushima is a book made from rice straw from the formerly decontaminated fields near Fukushima. It helps people understand that the rice is safe, by turning it into a medium.
Made in Fukushima / Book made from rice straw from decontaminated farmland, iF gold award

25,000 hectares of farmland were contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Environmental specialists from METER Group developed a sustainable decontamination method that allowed local farmers to safely grow rice again on this land. However, consumers were not convinced, and sales of the rice were poor. Made in Fukushima is a book made from rice straw from the formerly decontaminated fields near Fukushima. It helps people understand that the rice is safe, by turning it into a medium.

Only 3% of all text content is available in Braille, because translation is so complex that it requires input by human experts. Dot Translate is the first Braille translator based on AI. It can translate any digital text to Braille on its own, at near-human accuracy. This is because it is being trained with millions of the most accurate human translation samples to understand context. Dot Translate is accessible through an intuitive web interface, Dot devices and other digital Braille devices. It can translate a wide range of formats and even entire websites.
Dot Translate / Braille Translator, iF DESIGN AWARD 2020

Only 3% of all text content is available in Braille, because translation is so complex that it requires input by human experts. Dot Translate is the first Braille translator based on AI. It can translate any digital text to Braille on its own, at near-human accuracy. This is because it is being trained with millions of the most accurate human translation samples to understand context. Dot Translate is accessible through an intuitive web interface, Dot devices and other digital Braille devices. It can translate a wide range of formats and even entire websites.

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Since I graduated, I’ve slowly and steadily seen growth in many product sectors and the availability of products that are responsibly constructed. I also notice the fast growth of small brands that are quicker to initiate positive change than the older and bigger. I think a part of this growth is due to the increasing number of design schools that are now including sustainability aspects in their education programs. Education is at the heart of change, and by both educating the youth about why sustainability is important and equipping them with the tools they need to make better decisions and drive change, we will make sure that we change not just product design but society, too.

It is the responsibility of every adults, in any profession today to make sure that we are doing everything we can to build a future where our children and grandchildren inherit a home planet that supports life as we know it. As Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch without doing anything.”

When you take a look into the future, what do companies and designers still have to do/accomplish, to make everything more sustainable? To offer more sustainable products? Which is tricky: The materials can be sustainable, but maybe the further production isn’t? And still, being more sustainable in production and materials is also a matter of financial questions – or?

I dream of a future where individuals, businesses, organizations and governments all have the principals of sustainability ingrained to such a level that it is just the normal way of life and business. That circularity is designed into all aspects of our existence and we work in harmony with our planet.  Until then I believe sustainability needs to be integrated into all positions within a company. The surest, quickest and easiest way is to hire people that believe in your cause and want to change current business practices, and leadership that believes that implementing sustainability into their business strategy is necessary. I don’t believe it is possible to go from not thinking about sustainability to doing everything at once. This happens gradually and is a long-term vision and goal that we need to work at every day. I can understand the it is hard to know where to start or what to focus on. The impact your products make is often the most impactful area to start with, as most harm is often caused during the design stage.

The more knowledge you build around your supply chain the more you will see how and where your sustainable efforts are best focused. It’s like any sport or skill, you have to keep at it to improve and become great.

I believe that we all need to shift our gaze from short-term profits to more long-term ones. We need a vision that goes beyond the next quarter, next fiscal year or the next election. We need our economic viability to be less linked to consumerism, and more resilient in the times of crisis. We need to value quality and durability over a low price and quantity. Which is truly more expensive, the high-quality product where the supply chain treated our resources and ecosystems with respect or the one that never took its impact on our planet into account? True cost of a product needs to be reflected in the retail price and you and I need to stop partaking in the cheap short-term manipulations and price driven structures. In the future, responsible business practices and increased product sustainability will not be a ‘nice to have’, it will be required.

What power do the designers in bigger company design teams have to implement more awareness to responsible design and production?

I think most of us have more power to inspire change than we realize. In larger companies it can sometimes feel like trying to walk in honey, but the climate and our home planet are things that touch our collective future and we need to work together to drive change in whatever capacity we can. 

In short, learn to speak the language of sustainability. Inspire those around you to take action. Use your creative skills to do good. Implement integrity and responsibility into the heart of the process and implement a growth mindset to you and your company’s sustainability journey. Remember, balance is important and that to be able to do good your company needs to stay profitable. It is possible though that you need to inspire your company to pivot their mindset and practices to embrace these new times. If they don’t, they risk going out of business.

Learn the Language of Sustainability

In my experience it often falls on creatives to inspire other more analytical parts of the business to think outside the box. For me a part of a designer’s roll is to be the diplomat. Getting ideas and changes across is about being heard. To be heard it’s more successful to meet people where they are and inspire them to see why sustainable or respectful business practices are a long-term gain for the organization. Many designers are faced with the hard truth of profit margins with higher management not understanding the urgency to change their conventional practices. Don’t get frustrated. Go from another angle try to meet them where they are standing. It is about appealing to how it impacts their field of business rather than what I think is correct.

Inspire Action

Inspiring people to take action is what we do as designers. We envision the future and try to meet the desires and needs of people while turning a profit for our company. Inspiring change differs depending on whether it’s a small, medium or a large business. In my experience it has yielded greater results to instill a positive image of the future and highlight the positive outcomes of doing the right thing rather than dystopian ones. Why not use our creativity and influence for more than just seeing holes in the market and the opportunity to sell more products? I envision a future where I and all my fellow designers use our powers of influence others to tackle climate change. Join me and be a part of the solution.

Use your creative skills for doing good

I believe the single most important attribute of any designer is hers/his integrity and the feeling of responsibility for the creations they make. In many, if not most, cases designers hold an immense power over deciding what materials and components are used in the products they create and as “90 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage.” (The Responsible Company) all my fellow designers and I need to take our responsibility seriously. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the potential harm we cause as we don’t’ usually see it firsthand.

Designers don’t just choose the materials the product is made of; they also take part in how durable the product is and how easy it is to repair. My experience has taught me to measure twice before cutting and similarly it is much easier to design with responsibility and respect in mind rather than trying to swap out materials at the end. Start out from sustainable principles and the equation will go together more effortlessly.

Responsible Materials/Components List
It is hard and even unrealistic for every designer, as well as other positions within a company, to be experts in sustainability. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to have lists of preferred materials to lean on as a guideline and to support decisions that need to be consistent over multiple season, even years. It is important that the organization has a consensus around a list like this so that it becomes useful and helps reduce redundant discussions. My favorite list has 5 categories, Best in class, Acceptable, Only if necessarily, Never to use, Unclassified. A list like this is not static but needs to be revisited at least yearly and can vary from company to company as it moves forward on its journey towards responsibility. A preferred material list also makes it possible to measure where on that list the current product assortment falls, and it helps bring up constructive conversations around which products to convert to better alternative materials and at what tempo. It also creates a common vision and direction for all employees to follow and draws a line in the sand for all future products to be created only from best in class materials or acceptable ones at least.

Responsible Products Design
Some companies and brands have a product design philosophy that their designers can lean on to create products that fit the brand and their sustainability strategy, if not you are welcome to borrow mine.

My Responsible Checklist when creating products

Does the product serve a function or a need? (Preferably multiple ones)

Have I chosen low impact materials and components?

Are the materials and components durable and long lasting?

Does the care of the product in the user’s hands cause unnecessary harm to the environment?

Is the style of the product classic/timeless? In other words, does the product have the potential for emotional longevity?

Is the product repairable?

Can it be disassembled at the end of life?

Can it be upcycled/recycled?

Inspire a growth mindset
I feel that the sustainability journey is similar to hiking or climbing a high mountain, without a map. It is hard work; it’s easy to veer off route. But it is truly rewarding to stick with it, solve problems as they arise along the way and in the end reach the top. And when I do, I don’t just see a beautiful view and the joy of successfully completing my goal, I also see all the other mountaintops I want to climb. It is the same with sustainability. The more steps we take the more we learn, and the more we learn the better decisions we can make. We can’t expect to make all the right decisions straight away. We have to try and test our way forward, with our integrity as a compass.

Balance
“Profit is nice but so are People and Planet” read my t-shirt the day I and my fellow students demanded change of the fashion industry at the Copenhagen Fashion summit in 2012. At that time, I remember someone commenting on my t-shirt; “maybe you should switch out Nice for Necessary”. It took a few years of working in the outdoor industry to fully understand this comment. My idealistic nature and beliefs have been challenged since I joined the workforce. A company needs to be economically stable – sustainable, if you will – to be able to do good. What I don’t understand is the single-minded view of manipulating and exploitating to get a leg up. We are not in a finite race where we will tally up the score of the highest earners in the end. We are hopefully playing an infinite game where if we work with our planet, our supply chains and partners, we can all gain and thrive. In other words, profitability can’t outweigh sustainability every time, and sustainability is not possible without a profitable business. It’s finding the balance and running your business with integrity and striving to do good that’s key.

Have a great sustainable design as well?