Green wisdom or Greenwash?

As the design industry strives to get to grips with sustainability issues, can it do anything more practical than influence and inspire? asks Gina Lovett

There is a consensus across the industry that design is well placed to make a difference on the sustainability issue.

From the Chartered Society of Designers’ response to the Stern Review last November, to the Design Council’s sustainability event at the London Design Festival last month, design organisations have been enunciating the difference the industry can make to processes, materials, product development and delivery mechanisms that they and their representatives use.

But, with a plethora of different messages, activities and complex information on sustainable design to wade through, what are their recommendations? Should it be left up to individual designers to interpret the manifold definitions of sustainability?

The Design Council’s recent decision to cut its dedicated sustainability function has led to questions about how it can now practically embed sustainability into its work, which it says it is doing. Critics have commented that, without a dedicated function, it is in danger of simply becoming a slide in a presentation, an afterthought.

The Design Council’s SME business programme Designing Demand works on the basis that design can help overcome challenges that businesses experience ‘on the ground’.

Its mentoring programme, delivered by a roster of expert ‘design associates’, is a flexible framework that allows associates to advise businesses according to their needs. There are currently three sustainable design experts on the roster serving the UK.

Neil Gridley, programme development leader, says that the framework for the programme is supplied by the Design Council. Design associates can give advice ranging from the incremental to the radical.

‘Sustainability is a cross-cutting theme. It might be with regards to the material in a product, or an adjustment of a process to become more energy efficient, or even as far as developing a totally new proposition,’ he says. ‘It depends on the needs of the business, but we wouldn’t advise anything that might jeopardise [overall business] performance.’

The design associates, says Gridley, are there to help raise awareness, but will signpost businesses to other resources on complex sustainability issues.

The Design Council’s skills programme is another key area of its work where it claims sustainability is being embedded. Lesley Morris, head of its skills programme, explains that this is happening in a two-stage process.

The first stage, currently in progress, is evaluating the best design practice across universities, colleges and professional development training programmes in the UK. Sustainability, she says, is inextricably linked with good design practice. The recommendations arising from this research will result in a blueprint for design skills that will be published early next year.

Morris concedes that sustainability should not just be an add-on – or an option – within design courses, but says the Design Council cannot dictate to universities how to set their curriculums. Its job is to influence and inspire.

According to Morris, until demand for sustainable design skills among professionals and students alike rises, teaching bodies will only offer courses that are commercially viable. Morris says that the skills research has found that designers still don’t rate sustainability as a priority, because their clients do not ask for it.

Although critics argue that the rate of change is not quick enough, Morris says the Design Council is doing its best to help to develop the resources and programmes that address sustainability issues.

At the time of going to press, neither the Design Business Association nor the Chartered Society of Designers were available to comment on their sustainability agendas.

D&AD says that its mission is to educate and inspire the creative community. In the past year it has provided a platform for debate, holding sustainability events to discuss what the industry can do.

A spokeswoman says, ‘These events have been very well attended. Designers are clearly looking for resources and direction, and, in response, we are organising a member’s forum on the issue in November.’

British Design Innovation says that, although it does not take a ‘dictatorial’ approach to sustainability, the issue is a ‘constant’ in all of its innovation challenges.

Chief executive Maxine Horn feels that organisations should lead on the issue, but suggests that such a stance should come from a collaboration, looking at providing a cross-contextual advisory service.

According to John Thackara – programme director of Designs of the Time, the Design Council’s sustainable design initiative in the North East – taking leadership on issues where there is no one set of answers is a route that could possibly rebound.

‘Telling people what to do and thinking from the traditional “top down” isn’t the answer. It’s about exploring the places where design skills are needed and visualisations of where we have to get to,’ he says.

Design organisations, according to Thackara, should take the initiative in providing platforms where designers can collaborate with other sectors and industries to explore what needs to be done. Framing this sort of situation, he says, is a special activity.

‘Everyone’s grasping for clarity but there is none. This is why it has to be an

Taking a stand

• There are more than 1 million organisations worldwide with a sustainable interest, according to environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken

• Designs of the Time programme director John Thackara advises designers to get involved with these organisations in their area, and offer their skills and find out how they can get involved

• 80% of the environmental impact of products is determined at the design stage, according to product design research

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