Sustainable solutions can arise from informed data

Last week Design Week hosted a dinner attended by some 40 consultancy heads at which sustainability expert Dr Dominic Hogg put the case for creating products and adopting processes in line with the long-term needs of the planet rather than just for short-term commercial gain. He also outlined design’s potential role in effecting this change.

The mood of the evening is summed up admirably by Ian Webb of Webb Scarlet, a product designer working in packaging and branding (see Letters, page 11). Though there was some sympathy for the subject, there was a feeling that sustainability arguments might only sway clients if they can be shown to have a positive impact on the bottom line or if legislation is imposed to enforce more environment-friendly practices.

Very few in the audience – comprising mainly branding and communications design specialists, but with a handful of 3D folk – appeared confident about championing sustainability, though Dr Hogg pointed out the huge difference a simple act like specifying recycled paper for projects might make to the environment. The overwhelming impression was that there isn’t enough independent data available about processes and materials to help designers make an informed choice.

The bigger communications design groups have printand paper-buying departments whose job it is to keep abreast of products and services available. Meanwhile, most 3D design groups have extensive libraries and even research facilities on materials and processes. But the focus tends to be on features such as physical performance, cost or surface finish rather than on the product’s environmental impact.

With the best will in the world, few designers can claim to be adequately informed about what, in the early 1990s, was fashionably termed Green design. Even fewer have the knowledge or time to assess what is best for the job when all factors are taken into account.

So how do we change that? Education is, of course, key, instilling not just knowledge of sustainability but an attitude in aspiring designers of all disciplines. Education can also help to inform clients and consumers, creating a cultural shift over time. But it takes time.

So until that kicks in, where do designers go for information? The ‘old’ Design Council offered an advisory service on materials, one of the few good things that were lost in the mid-1990s when John Sorrell stripped it back to the streamlined body it is now.

As the council is now keen to get back in with the design community, might it not consider reintroducing a materials service – made easier these days with Internet access? It would build an invaluable bond with design, while also helping British businesses.

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