Nine years ago, when I worked at the Design Council, I discovered ‘sustainability’. It was an idea that was already a few years old, but I certainly hadn’t heard about it. Cradle-to-grave and sustainable development were both terms that were new to me.
Neither was sustainability of much interest to anyone else at the time. Businesses were ambivalent and didn’t see any desire in their consumers for eco or Green products, and they despised legislative threats from the European Union to promote the taking back of products and ban nasty materials.
Examples of sustainable products from the design profession were rare, occasionally cool, but usually ugly, using strange, rough-round-the-edges recycled materials that were not sexy.
I went to Japan at the time to look at how the Japanese had pioneered similar legislation to that proposed in Europe. Rival consumer electronics brands collaborated with shared recycling plants, extracting materials and reusing them in new television sets, fridges and washing machines. It excited me, and the opportunity for British manufacturers struck me as huge. In the global supply chain, wouldn’t it be great if ‘Made in Britain’ meant Green, low-energy, recycled materials?
Idealistic though such ideas were, I did not foresee the great clamour for Green that we have now, nor the progress that we would make. Eco-consultant Gary McCullogh – of consultancy Via Verde, and formerly eco-consultant for Sagem in Paris – recently told me that in the past ten years the environmental impact of a typical consumer product has halved and will continue to lessen in the next ten years. Miniaturisation, the replacement of products by services, and the elimination of hazardous materials have all played a part, but the main improvements have been through changes in the way we design circuit boards – using one chip, for example, when previously five components would have been needed.
There has also been a huge increase in public awareness about environmental issues and a growing desire for ecologically sound products and services, and this has led businesses to change how they do things.
Under huge pressure from Green activists, Apple has redesigned all its products to address concerns over their environmental impact.
But our perception of what is Green doesn’t always match reality. The impact of the plastic casing of a product, for example, is probably no more than half a per cent of that product’s environmental impact. Getting smug about specifying recycled plastic, or getting hot under the collar about metallic finishes, is mostly irrelevant. Frantically unplugging your mobile phone charger is only a token contribution: the total power consumption of a mobile phone over its lifecycle is dwarfed by that used in extracting and creating its electronic components and circuit board. Which is just as well, as the design profession has singularly failed to respond well to environmental concerns, or has responded in peripheral ways that feed our perception of caring, but which aren’t really relevant.
So despite believing, as I usually do, that design is at the root of everything and a powerful force for good, the real successes are the result of political agreements, global legislation, industry standardisation and corporate responsibility. The public really does care. Even if they aren’t that willing to pay more for Green goods and services, they do want to do the right thing.
So the biggest contribution that design can make to saving the planet may not be in designing Green products, but crafting behaviour change, redesigning the systems we use, enhancing services to extend across many products to bring them together and find efficiency and interoperability.
Beyond that, the last remaining taboo of sustainability is the economics of production. At some point, we have to make less stuff, disassemble and reuse, change the parameters and business models on which both enterprise and design depend and by which we measure success. Is it sustainable for business success to be measured in sales performance? Is it sustainable for design effectiveness to be measured by the same criteria?
Design has been slow to peep above the sustainability parapet and do anything more than posture. So we can feel relieved that our contribution to cradle-to-grave impact might be less than we feared, but we are still horribly implicated in systems that perpetuate environmental impact.
My favourite piece of design of all time is the Whirlpool ‘washing machine of the future’, where items of clothing are put in buckets surrounded by plants that naturally cleanse the water until the clothes are clean. It takes a week, but that turns out to be the average time your shirt sits in the laundry basket anyway.
The Whirlpool design team used their skills to paint an alternative scenario, which challenged preconceptions and pointed to possible future solutions that might become acceptable when the stakes and our appetite for change are greater.
Design needs to tell these stories that make us think twice about bleached white shirts, our natural smells and our ideas about Green cleaning. It needs to find new concepts for living, making money and increasing value. If the developments in materials, processes and engineering continue to help us to clean up as we go, then design will only be effective if it acknowledges it has to change and find new behaviours, business models and futures that are sustainable.
Clive Grinyer is director of customer experience at Cisco