The UN’s ten-year framework for sustainable consumption now calls for more action on the demand side, as the historical focus on the supply side has achieved limited success. For example, Greener public procurement can start to build markets, as the passing of the Green Purchasing Law in 2001 has done in Japan.
The creation of more ‘sustainable solutions’ for products and services requires higher levels of innovation and creativity. This can be driven through customer requirements and/or regulatory compliance or it can be internally motivated.
There must be a role for product designers and design engineers to exercise their creative muscles, but as yet they have not been the catalyst for change in the sustainability agenda.
However, that agenda is becoming more opaque. Some companies are pinning their colours to the environmental flag, others to ‘triple bottom line’ sustainability, while others still are positioning themselves on the ‘corporate social responsibility’ or ‘corporate responsibility’ agenda.
This lack of a common language is creating growing confusion among stakeholders. The changing business model and increased interest in the ‘world behind the brand’ means there is a need to understand financial, environmental and social impacts throughout value chains and networks.
The key challenge is to determine the key issues and what they mean for your customers, your company, your solutions and your suppliers. To do this will require new ways of working and the creation of multidisciplinary teams drawn from R&D, design, marketing, brands, sustainability, procurement and other external partners.
EC surveys indicate a weak interaction between business and academia on the issues surrounding sustainable design. Behind the scenes, many leading-edge companies have been completing work on sustainable design issues for several years.
The knowledge in these corporations is considerably more advanced than in design schools, universities and consultancies, whose key question is: where is the ‘added value’?
At the other end of the spectrum, SMEs lack the knowledge and skills related to sustainable design, because of a lack of customer requirements, awareness and a few simple tools.
As many UK firms are now involved in systems integration, assembly and/or design – having moved out of manufacturing – there is a need for improved supply chain data on materials, energy and toxicity, particularly from South-East Asian suppliers.
However, many of these companies lack environmental awareness and understanding. This means that new approaches to co-operating with suppliers will be required, as new products and services will have to be backed up by more sophisticated and robust product-related environmental information systems.
The time has come for product designers and design engineers to up the ante as a range of opportunities and risks begins to emerge.
The question is whether this has been recognised and if the professions are ready to respond with appropriate, innovative, sustainable solutions.
Professor Martin Charter
The Centre for Sustainable Design
Surrey Institute of Art & Design, University College