top of page
  • Writer's pictureGabriela Barón

The de-materialization of tangible products in a sustainability perspective

Below there is an english version of my article published in Cuadernos del Centro de Estudios de Diseño y Comunicación Nº70 (2018). ISSN: 1668-0227. Diffuse Materialities, a joint research between Politécnico di Milano and Universidad de Palermo.

The complete article in Spanish can be downloaded here.


In the practice of future scenario forecasting for a sustainable development, the western free market paradigms are becoming deeply threatened by our ecological limits. It is clear now that the environmental crisis is directly linked to consumption and cannot be tackled with traditional technical responses. The most promising innovations that present viable solutions to the environmental crisis are of social nature. Within this perspective, Designers seem to have arrived to a dead-end road in relation to material creation. Far from discouraging, these limits have shed light on a whole new spectrum of professional opportunities towards social-well-being, where Designers have the lead as creative facilitators. Dematerialization becomes a challenging, attractive and viable course of action, placing people as the primary material for change.


When designers forecast future scenarios regarding new materials, an ever-awing parade of trends, technologies and award-winning innovations awaken our creative spirit and stimulate our minds with endless opportunities. But just a glance into modern lifestyle is enough for us to understand how difficult it is to innocently link the word “future” with the word “materials”. These opportunities only seem “endless”. It is naive and dangerous for Designers to envision futures with no regard of our ecological limits.

I will not need to quote the vast amount of scientific data that describe the emergency state the world is in. As a society we are carrying out an environmental depletion that may lead us to extinction as a race. According to the United Nations, we will need “two earths” worth of resources to sustain the world population by 2030 (Moore et al., 2012). This environmental crisis is tightly linked to a social and ethical crisis of global inequality, as a few countries consume the majority of resources (20% of the population consume 80% of the Earth´s resources), while the ecological consequences are suffered worldwide (FAO, 2003).

It is justified to say that the blame should be placed in consumption patterns. This is where the traditional role of the Industrial Designer is deeply challenged, since the basis of his labor is to conceive products to be produced industrially. Numerous design approaches have arisen to tackle the sustainability problem, but mandatory questions should be asked: Which could be the ethical role of the Designer in an over-consumer society? Where lies the ethical burden of deciding which product will be part of a solution to this crisis and which product will contribute to the problem? Design, being tightly bound to production and consumption, plays a crucial role in the pursuit of a more sustainable society (Martilla, 2011).

Dematerialization and consumption

The idea of Dematerialization implies the use of less material, energy, water and land to achieve the same (or better) economic output. According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP, 2011) “Dematerialization ultimately describes decreasing the material requirements of whole economies. It requires (a) reducing the material intensity of products and services, i.e. by increasing material efficiency, and (b) especially reducing the use of primary material resources (such as ores, coal, minerals, metals, etc.) by improving recycling and re-use of secondary materials (i.e. shifting to a circular economy)”.

Through product and process design and innovation, based on Life Cycle Thinking (EU, 2010), manufacturers, suppliers and designers are figuring out how to do more with less: use less material, extend the life of materials, use less energy-intensive processes to transform those materials, and utterly question if that material product is the best way to satisfy the need that demanded for it. On this last point, in the deepest level, the concept of dematerialization leads to lesser consumption, and the consequent less demand for products. When most marketable products are not only unnecessary, but materially unviable in a realistic future perspective, what is the role of the Industrial designer? The answer to this question requires us to take a long, critical look at the traditional conception of our profession, with no disregard to the ethical consequences at stake.

Numerous authors have reflected in this particular problematic and have provided critical analysis, methodological frameworks and tools that amplify the role of the Designer, adding value to its unique technical, creative and communicative capacities. Throughout this article, some of these approaches are presented, with dematerialization as a common strategy towards sustainable consumption.

Systemic approaches for Dematerialization

Through a systemic approach, dematerialization can be achieved through techniques that start in the product itself and reach a social and cultural dimension in its deepest levels. Systems thinking was introduced by professor Jay Forrester in 1956 for the understanding of complex social systems (Forrester, 1994). Instead of separating in parts and breaking into smaller pieces the subject of study (as traditional analysis does), systems thinking observes the interaction of different parts of the studied object, expanding the scope in order to integrate relationships. Within this framework, design has a larger potential to tackle sustainability issues from the project´s conception stages. As an example, the process of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has been adapted as a powerful tool for Design for Sustainability (Vezzoli and Manzini, 2008).

Tukker (2004) proposes levels of intervention that go from technical and material aspects, such as “enhancing the impact efficiency of technology” (clean technologies) and production efficiency (less energy in production), to intervention in social aspects, such as planning the intensity of use (pooling, sharing), enhancing immaterial functionalities and creating “no need” contexts. The conclusion is that the task of achieving true sustainability, is no longer predominantly a scientific or technological one, but a cultural and social one (Hamilton, 2010).

Similarly, Vezzoli and Manzini (2008), in their book “Design for Environmental Sustainability”, present four levels of intervention, where dematerialization can be achieved as follows:

1. The environmental redesign of existing systems: This level implies the reduction of material and energy embodied in the product. There are several published methodologies and tools for this level, which generally affect different stages of its life cycle. As an example, we could think of a disposable/recyclable water bottle that employs significantly less plastic by its redesign, through thinner walls and structural shape. This redesign reflects not only on the use of less raw material, but also the probable use of recycled material as well, the weight of the product will be less, needing less energy for transportation, its shape could facilitate compaction, meaning less storage volume of the waste, and so on. This level does not require a change in consumption and the dematerialization happens only in a technical level.

2. The design of new products and services: This level implies the replacement of existing products with new ones conceived to be environmentally efficient in every stage of their life cycle. Although still working on a technical level, the resulting proposals tend to have more difficulty fitting in existing consumption patterns, and require a change in values and cultural context of consumption. Following the water bottle example, this level would be illustrated by the hard plastic bottles that are meant to be non-disposable and refillable. The bottle itself has more material for durability, but the dematerialization is radical considering the improvement in its life extension.

3. The design of new Product-Service Systems: This level shifts the focus from the product itself towards the satisfaction of the need that requires the product. This focus allows the designer to make radically different proposals (intrinsically sustainable) that satisfy the same need. Dematerialization occurs not only in the life cycle of all the products and services involved, but also in behavioral changes in all the actors involved. For these proposals to be effective, they need to be culturally and socially appreciated, usually through strategic communication. This level implies radical dematerialization through deep changes in consumption behavior, such as shared consumption.

4. The proposal of new scenarios of sustainable lifestyles: This level aims straight at the re-orientation of the dominant production-consumption patterns. Dematerialization is achieved through the subsequent lifestyle choices that will be encouraged by the proposed scenario. The scenarios operate in a cultural sphere since they are based on research, collection and re-interpretation of existing promising cases. This level acknowledges the transversality of the problematic and its deep social roots, and addresses not only the environmental facet of Design for Sustainability, but also the social and economical implications. As an example of this level, the consumer would critically question the way water is marketed (with its ecological implications), may renounce to be part of that system, and may actively participate in the co-creation of a bottom-up water consumption alternative.

The authors brilliantly summarize the levels above mentioned, stating that “design for environmental sustainability entails facilitating the capacity of the production system to respond to the social demand of well-being, while using drastically smaller amounts of environmental resources than needed by the present system” (Vezzoli and Manzini, 2008). In synthesis, they propose the Dematerialization of well-being.

It is important to note that the mentioned strategies do not imply a loss of well-being by the user, but a shift in the values that define well-being itself. In this context, the current environmental and social crisis has reached such depth, that people are starting to question the foundational belief that improved well being depends on ever-higher levels of consumption (Hamilton, 2010). As an example of this deep ecological behavioral change, social phenomena like the ‘downshifting’ movement appear, where adepts make the voluntary decision to reduce one’s income and consumption, in the quest for more quality of life. These “social innovators” understand that having more time for activities that actually improve their levels of well-being (that involve family, friends, health, hobbies, etc.) is more satisfactory that spending time working, in order to make money to buy things that promise to augment well-being.

Dematerialization through unfinishnedness and collaboration

A profound reflection of the evolution of Design can be made by analyzing the evolution of Natural Systems. A complementary approach that observes nature in order to find possible strategies of evolution and adaptation to such an ecological crisis, is the one or Error-Friendliness (Von Weizaker, 1988). This concept is intimately related to design for Sustainability, in the sense of conceiving products with long life cycles. Ezio Manzini (1994) elaborates on error-friendliness by criticizing over-specialized products that leave no room for versatility or evolution in time. While super-specialization often leads to extinction in radical contextual changes, sub-optimal products enable their adaptation by users, surviving contextual changes and extending their duration.

A strategy for error-friendliness is incompleteness, as the product becomes a tool for the user to co-create the finished product that will satisfy his need. Versatility is the clue. A clear example could be a set of lego bricks, which since their invention have become a classic toy we all have played with. In a more complex example we could think of a modular system of office furniture, that can mutate, adapt and change over time. The environmental benefits are numerous: longer life span of the system, reposition of parts for reparation, possibility of expansion, shared consumption, personalization, and so on. In synthesis, technological systems based on modular solutions, decentralized and diversified in their production and function, are intrinsically more error-friendly (Manzini, 1994).

In a consumer-satisfaction sense, unfinished products are open for collaboration, co-creation, with all the benefits of “self-organization”. When a product system is versatile, it enables different combinations, completing itself with user´s capacities. Results can be unexpected, they can evolve and change over time, they can be error-resilient and socially innovative. A great example of this is the open-source software movement which has led to unprecedented results like Wikipedia or Linux.

Dematerialization through Servicization

Dematerialization can take place at a much larger scale as we move from a product-based to a service-based economy. The service economy focuses on the optimization of the utilization (or performance) of goods and services, and thus on the management of existing wealth (goods, knowledge, nature). The economic objective of the service economy is “to create the highest possible utilization value for the longest possible period of time while consuming as few material resources and as little energy as possible” (Stahel, 2001). If instead of a consumer owning a product they lease it, a manufacturer is incentivized to design products that are durable, maintainable, upgradeable and re-usable (Dooley, 2013).

Companies are realizing the fact that even though they are selling products, people buy the service these products provide. Realizing that users buy products to fulfill needs that need other products and services to deliver satisfaction, and emotional needs that go beyond what a product can provide. By complementing their offer with services that add value to the product, they reinforce, enable, teach, expand the experience of the product and create a sense community. These companies can be for profit or not for profit, part of a social economic model or not, the value added is financed in the price and the repeated transactions with the costumers (Oliva and Kallemberg, 2003). The relationship changes from being transaction-based to relationship-based. Servicization strategies increase overall efficiency of the production-consumption model enabling social benefits that go further that dematerialization.

Finally, but highly important is the fact that services become a sustainable source of competitive advantage by using one of the most available resource on the planet: human labor.


Future technologies and materials open new perspectives for dematerialization in a product level, where the lightness of new products may reduce environmental impacts. But in a material-finite world that faces an unprecedented environmental crisis, designers need to broaden their role and start satisfying social needs with solutions are are less material-intensive.

Industrial Design as a profession is going through a major ethical crisis, since its existence supposes the satisfaction of human needs (in both the technical and emotional levels) through continuous design process, that implies production and commerce. While the bottomline of this material crisis is the current production-consumption model where his profession stands, an optimistic future scenario is one where people choose to consume less in order to improve their quality of life, defying this model.

It is not my personal conclusion when I state that the only viable perspective is of radical change and systemic innovation, as numerous experts have arrived to this drastic, challenging statement. In this scenario, designers have the tools and knowledge to act as promoters of new interpretations of well-being that require less material objects and more immaterial value. Accordingly, numerous design approaches have been proposed to promote dematerialization in different levels, from a product level to a behavioral level.

Servicization and unfinishedness become promising strategies for drastically reducing the material intensity of products. These approaches have a strong social component, since they emphasize expanded (and systemic) stakeholder interaction, user participation and open source distribution of results. Here, the role of the designer, the producer and the consumer are more permeable, with blurred borders that enable highly innovative ways of doing. These new ways may need new tools, but above all they will need strategic communication and creative problem-solving skills.

The bottomline is that we cannot conceive visions of the material future disregarding the fact that our material resources are limited. Limits are part of our ecosystem and any system conceived for unlimited growth (as the capitalist consumption model) is unsustainable and leads to collapse. Material limits are opportunities to set us free from traditional paradigms, towards new professional roles and numerous possibilities of intervention. Strategic Dematerialization becomes a challenging, attractive, and viable course of action towards a sustainable material future. Designers can provoke existing paradigms and innovate, placing people as the primary material for change. As Ezio Manzini said, in a vastly populated planet, human resources are the most abundant ones.


Dooley, K. (2013). Product design: Do it with Dematerialization. CSR Wire, 14–16. Retrieved from:

EU - European Union (2010). Making sustainable consumption and production a reality. ISBN: 978-92-79-14357-1 DOI: 10.2779/91521. Available at

FAO - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2003). The state of food insecurity in the world. ISBN 92-5-104986-6. Rome, Italy

Forrester, J. W. (1994). System dynamics, systems thinking, and soft OR. Syst. Dyn. Rev., 10: 245–256. doi:10.1002/sdr.4260100211

Hamilton, C. (2010). Consumerism, self-creation and prospects for a new ecological consciousness. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 571–575.

Manzini, E. (1994). Physis and design. Interaction between nature and culture. Article available at: Retrieved on: 02 August 2016

Marttila, Tatu (2011). Dematerialization by Design - Sustainability in the consumer society. Position paper for ARKTIS Summer School 2011. Design Connections Doctoral Program. Aalto University, School of Art and Design

Moore, D., Galli, A., Cranston, G.R., Reed, A., (2012). Projecting future human demand on the Earth’s regenerative capacity. Ecological Indicators, 16, 100–112.

Oliva, R. and Kallenberg, R. (2003). Managing the transition from products to services. International Journal of Service Industry Management, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 160-172.

Stahel W. (2001). Sustainability and Services, in Sustainable Solutions – Developing products and services for the future, Charter M. and Tischner U. (edit by), Greenleaf publishing, UK.

Tukker, A. (2004). Eight types of product-service system: eight ways to sustainability? Experiences from suspronet, Business Strategy and the Environment, vol. 13, no. 4

UNEP (2011). Prepared by Meghan O’Brien and Stefan Bringezu, Wuppertal Institute. Draft Glossary of Terms Used by the International Resource Panel. Page 3.

Vezzoli, C. (2007). System Design for Sustainability. Maggioli Editore, Milano, Italy.

Vezzoli, C., & Manzini, E. (2008). Design for Environmental Sustainability. London: Springer London.

Weizaker, E. i C., Von (1988). Come vivere con gli errori. II valore evolutivo degli errori. Ceruti, M., Laszlo, E.

75 views0 comments


bottom of page