Detroit — What are the emotional drivers of sustainability? According to research by Kiersten Muenchinger, head of the product design department at the University of Oregon in Eugene, there are four.
Muenchinger, who was a panelist during a Nov. 8 session on sustainable design considerations at the 2017 Design in Plastics event, referenced a study she did to gauge how people emotionally relate to sustainability in products.
At the start of the discussion, she passed around a set of 11 cups. The cups were the same size — all injection molded — but each was made from a different polymer. Materials ranged from polypropylene and polylactic acid to high density polyethylene made from sugar feedstock and conventional HDPE.
The results of her study showed that participants found only four material design strategies to be indicative of the cups' sustainability: durability, naturalness, degradability and rawness.
You will notice that recyclability did not make the cut.
"Recyclability is one of the things we talk about a lot," she said. "If we make something out of more recycled materials or more recyclable materials, is that something people are going to see and understand in a product on the market? The research I've done says no."
Muenchinger said the outcome probably goes back to a consumer's experience with recycling products, where there's a fine line between whether an item makes it into the recycling bin or ultimately ends up in a landfill. The study's participants seem to be defining sustainability based on experiences they know they can rely on, she said.
"I think that's one of the reasons that durability is something that's driving sustainability," she added. "People have a very good experience with durability and know that something that's durable is something they'll keep for a long time."