Sustainable Service Design

Summary: To help solve climate goals, we can lean into Service Design with its core solution-agnostic approach. This approach evokes hidden ecosystem resources and opportunities, helping tackle the complexity of climate change. In addition, systems thinking used in sustainability and service design projects can help address social and ecological issues more precisely.

What is Sustainable Service Design?

Businesses and organizations strive to adopt environmentally-friendly practices to minimize their ecological footprint. As 2030 deadlines approach, we need to think and act fast. One area that has gained significant attention is Service Design, where companies are reimagining their processes and offerings to create a positive impact on the planet.

To comprehend sustainable service design, we must first understand the approach of Service Design itself. Service Design likes to look at triple ecosystems  (users, services, and business as well as planetary limits). UX Design typically focuses on a single product, user, and channel. However, sustainable service design takes this approach one step further by integrating eco-conscious practices into every aspect of the service delivery process.

Why is Service Design right for tackling climate goals?

The urgency to adopt sustainable service design arises from the looming threat of climate change and its adverse environmental impacts. Studies show that consumers want businesses to help them shift their practices towards greener alternatives, and sustainable service design offers a practical approach: 88% of US & UK consumers in a OnePulse study said they wanted help from brands to be more sustainable.

survey-88% of consumers want brands to help them be more sustainable

Clearly, brands can do more to nudge sustainability behaviors. Service Design offers a wider vantage point to help understand holistic journeys involving products and services across channels. Sustainability challenges require this wider view. Consider the Carbon Neutral Britain website (see image below) proclaiming, “Saving the Planet Starts with You.”

sustainability starts with you

Instead, Service Design says, “Saving the Planet starts with creators of products and services helping nudge and defaulting to sustainable, circular, renewable sourcing, supply chains and more…”. This Systems View (see System Thinking cheatsheet) helps designers go beyond narrow contexts into broader or more entangled forces, more consistent with today’s global complexity.

Where UX Design might look at the individual user and see climate as individual responsibility, Service Design looks at the entire ecosystem of users.

Prioritizing Service Design for greater impact

In Toward Donut Centered Design, Chris Golias, Sr. User Researcher at Google, said:

Service design provides a useful starting point for thinking about how we might design a system that functions in a sufficiently holistic way to address systemic, complex, interrelated issues.

UX Design emerged from Human Centered Design, which follows an outdated product-centric focus. Therefore, Service Design approaches are needed. Golias explains:

“Human-centered design grew out of technology design within the field of human-computer interaction; thus it emphasizes the discrete relationship between a technology and its users. By contrast, service design examines all aspects of an offering, both internal and external to the organization providing the offering. Moreover, it examines the social matrix in which it interacts. Because of its wider aperture, some practitioners have begun to apply service design to social development or governmental contexts (Stickdorn et. al. 2018). This application of service design–to the arena of social impact–is of particular interest to the formulation of donut centered design, for it’s aim to create a social foundation.”

In short, Golias calls for expanding our “customer journey in the larger ecosocial context.” Donut Economics (Raworth) calls for solutions that prioritize the social center of the donut while minding planetary boundaries (SDG Goals). Even the grandfather of Human Centered Design (Donald Norman) now calls the methodology he once popularized Humanity-Centered Design. It effectively calls for a wider lens as covered by Donut Centered Design.

We can summarize the urgency for Sustainable Service Design playing a key role in:

  • Factoring sustainability (ecological boundaries) into design strategy as an ecosystem actor and a stakeholder.

As we approach 2030, sustainability “is no longer a standalone priority” (IBM & The Consumer Goods Forum study 2023). Further, the UN Secretary-General (March 2023) warned: “The climate time bomb is ticking.” In issuing this final warning, the Secretary-General also said we need “everyone, everywhere, all at once” to tackle sustainability development goals (SDGs).

  • Prioritizing users with the highest need for inclusion. Here UX teams can leverage Service Design and Inclusive Design…

“To reach the Global Goals we cannot rely on economic growth – business as usual will not work. Sectors need to understand the role they can play in removing obstacles to social progress and work together to create healthier societies.” -Social Progress in 2030, Deloitte Insights

See UX teams must embrace Inclusive Design

Case studies

Several companies have embraced sustainable service design with remarkable outcomes.

The company Bob Eco addressed rural unemployment, motorcycle pollution, and extended battery life in Uganda. This e-mobility product-service system involves driver training, ownership of electric bikes within two years, and company ownership via Bob coin, an asset-backed social cryptocurrency. The e-mobility e-bike design was designed after a careful study of rural Uganda drivers (taxi, goods delivery) where a large ‘banana seat’ was required for multiple passengers. To stay in play, a battery-swapping station was devised (one of the first to create this e-mobility innovation).

Here’ Bob Eco addresses social as well as environmental goals (two of the SDG’s shown in the image below- #7 Affordable and Clean Energy and #1 No Poverty).

sustainable service design Bob bikes


Another success story comes from Hairprint, a hair color restoration product. Hairprint uses only 8 natural ingredients that do not dye hair, but reverse hair color to it’s original color. By reducing toxins linked to cancer in most hair dyes and the pollution of flushing those dyes into local water supplies, Hairprint protects largely female users from eg, cancer-exposing dyes and the water ecosystem, or SDG goals #14 Life below water and #3 Good Health and Well-Being.

Moreover, the inventor of Hairprint John Warner created the field of Green Chemistry to develop the product which reverses gray and silver hair. A founder of Green Chemistry, he has published over 200 patents, papers and books. He’s founder, President and Chief Technology Officer of Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, and co-founder of Beyond Benign, a nonprofit for sustainability and green chemistry education. Learn more in this video…


sustainable service design case study- Hairprint


Sustainable service design encourages the active involvement of customers most excluded from the design process. These so-called “extreme users” can be an untapped source of innovation. While the benefits of sustainable service design are evident, the transition can present certain challenges. Most important is to address both planet and underrepresented users simultaneously. By reducing harm and bias with Inclusive Design (inside of the donut), we can also meet SDG challenges addressing sustainability (outside of the donut).

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