“How might we build more ethical and sustainable products?”

PTL #4

What we learnt:

  • understand the larger responsibility that we and the organisation have
  • how all of us are a part of an interconnected system
  • how might we find the sustainable sweet spot

Unintended consequences

  • Good intentions can result in far bigger problems
Unintended consequences

Interconnected Systems

Our current economic system often incentivizes waste generation and encourages producers to manipulate their products to be used up and then discarded for something new in increasingly shorter cycles.

As product people, it’s our job to ensure that our products are kind — i.e. they are ethical and do not cause any harm. An ethical product is an offering that does not cause any harm, neither to its users nor the planet. The former includes negatively impacting the people’s mental wellbeing. The latter comprises contributing to climate change by developing and providing the product.

To do so, one needs to consider potential unintended consequences to 3 main parts of an interconnected systems: planet, product, and/or people:

Interconnected System
  • Social systems are the intangible social scaffolding that humans have developed over time to function as a society.
  • Industrial systems involve most of goods and services that fill our lives.
  • Ecosystems are all the natural services that keep the Earth alive.

How might we create a more ethical product?

Some questions to reflect on

  1. What is our intention?
    Are we truly creating products that will enrich the people’s lives?
  2. Have we considered their mental wellbeing?
    Should we notify our users for every interactions that happened? What is the threshold between being useful and stress-inducing? Should we show content that receives high viewing even though it might promote violence or hatred?
  3. Is our business model ethical?
    Should we charge our users or provide them for free? who will bear the cost? Products are value-creating vehicles: They exist to generate benefits for the users and business. When digital products are offered for free, monetisation typically takes place in form of exposing users to ads and selling their data.
  4. How are our design and technology choices affecting people, industry, and the planet?
    Did we create an experience that misleads and pushes users in a direction that benefits the interests of the company rather than the user?
  5. What’s the environmental impact of our product? It is important that we raise public awareness so that, collectively, we can implement meaningful personal and systemic changes to reduce the environmental impact and successfully transition to a low-carbon economy.


  • While there are values in getting things a lot faster - are we actually designing product that are good for humanity?
  • “Good” is a spectrum and not binary. What is good for you is ‘subjective’, i.e. What may be good for you may have negative repercussions to other people.
    How do you define something is good for the planet? Where do you draw the line?
  • Your intention matters. How do you perceived the problem? How are you going to remedy the unintended consequences?
    • Necessity and excessive
    • Sustainability vs. minimalism - Is “minimalism” a better approach when creating a product?
  • “Time” should be one variable to consider
    • Is a product good for short-term? Long-term?
    • Should we build a product that last long and benefit more people?
    • Should we build a product that has its own “expiration date” ?
    • What do we sacrifice when pursuing sustainability?
  • “Good” isn’t just a state (you can’t just say that you are a good or a bad company), it should be a direction.
    As product people, it’s unavoidable for us to make some short-term decisions that do harm intentionally or unintentionally BUT the sum total of our decisions and our product should benefit the three Ps.
  • Ask the tough questions; Recognise the tension - Be deliberate and intentional in making the design choice.

“The path to be more sustainable is a complex domain and should be treated as such. Not for the reason to discourage us from taking any actions, more to illustrate that there are many moving parts to this picture. We might discover more questions and that can feel overwhelming… What’s more important is to be able to hold the space to ask these questions; as an individual, a family member, a friend, a colleague, or a leader in our own organisation. And move towards actions that we believe in, measure them, and continue from there.” - cited from Azri

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