Full circle

It is about time product designers and manufacturers started to take responsibility for the damage their products are doing to the environment.

Design is an act of creation. It’s about filling blank space to create something from nothing. What happens to that creation when it’s replaced by faster, better, cheaper, sexier alternatives is rarely part of the design agenda.

That will have to change. From August 2004, a European law covering the recycling of electronic products and the use of hazardous materials comes into force. The sustainability agenda is about to hit product design, and it’s either the biggest threat to, or biggest opportunity for, the manufacturing and design industries.

The legislation – a European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive for the recycling of electronic products and a Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive – means manufacturers will be responsible for taking back products at the end of their life and not using materials such as lead solder in the manufacturing process.

The majority of UK designers and manufacturers believe they are already sustainable, according to a Design Council survey, whereas in Germany less than half believed they were sustainable. Rather than reflect reality, this shows that the UK industry idea of sustainable practices is a lot less challenging than the German standard – a renowned Green country. UK manufacturing must invest in new processes to comply, and design can go a long way to help.

Product design poses problems for sustainability. It focuses on combining manufacturing processes in an economically viable way to create objects that are relevant and useful. Success is measured in sales: the more products made, the better. However, supply of natural resources is not endless, and the disposal of products at the end of their life is creating a global environmental problem. This is exacerbated by the accelerating pace of technology, which further reduces the life of products as they become incompatible or redundant.

For example, mobile phone companies must constantly update their handsets to keep customers happy. This means there are a lot of perfectly good old handsets around. Responsibility for ‘take back’ lies with the manufacturer, but networks are also adopting the initiative. Many operate the Fonebank scheme, which prolongs the life of handsets by selling them to less technically demanding markets around the world.

Take back already happens in Japan, where retailers share responsibility with the public and use money from the manufacturers to fund local recycling centres. They have no choice. In Japan, room for waste is running out and recycling centres financed by manufacturers to reclaim materials from refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines and televisions have been created. The UK Government proposes copying this system before it’s too late.

But for true sustainability, environmental impact must be factored into the design process from the start. Newly recycled or recyclable materials can be found using resources such as those at Kingston University or Goldsmith’s demi website. Designers must also make clients aware of the comet that’s about to hit. Complaints that clients aren’t asking for sustainable products don’t hold water. They didn’t ask for usability, ergonomics brand and design strategies either, until the design profession championed these issues. The design industry is, or should be, good at anticipating new developments and creating change for their clients.

Designers shouldn’t try to save the whole planet in one go. A step change is enough. Improvements in at least one area – decreasing energy consumption, reusing materials or replacing a product with a system – are better than nothing. And thinking broadly is vital, particularly with product design: British Airways’ flat seat is an innovative solution ensuring passengers get a good night’s sleep, but it also means they consume less food and drink. That, in turn, means fewer meals are required, which reduces the aircraft’s weight. Similarly, Apple’s iPod downloading technology removes the need for a lot of equipment. Steelcase’s Aeron chair is designed to last forever, and Kodak’s recycled disposable camera is a triumphant piece of environmental design. In many cases, products can be replaced by services: the fax machine has been replaced by e-mail and the answerphone has been replaced by voicemail.

Design industry bodies also play an important role. The Eco design community is a worthy, but largely ignored discipline. The Design Museum Design Sense awards ran for a few years and began to show, through examples such as Sainsbury’s architecturally, environmentally and commercially successful Greenwich peninsula store that sustainability stimulates innovation and creativity. The Design Council and the Confederation of British Industry have run projects with organisations such as Jaguar, British Airways and Croydon Council identifying sustainable initiatives.

But the Design Sense awards have stopped and we wait to hear how the Design Council will influence manufacturers and policy-makers to address the sustainability agenda. These bodies may nod in agreement at the idea of sustainable design, but they must be proactive.

The real pioneers of sustainable product design are found in academia. The Centre for Sustainable Design, led by Professor Martin Charter, operating from Surrey University, was one of the first organisations to connect sustainable manufacturing and design. Anne Chick and colleagues at Kingston University have created on-line resources for designers. Goldsmiths has pioneered a sustainable design course and similar syllabuses are sprouting up all over the country. These institutions are creating a generation of designers who have the skills to solve the problems; it is they who will champion design to Government agencies.

Sustainability demands manufacturers use engineering ingenuity and design innovation to build Green global excellence. Designers must apply the same passion they used to create a product at the end of its life, to allow products to be reborn without damaging the environment or ourselves.

The four Ds of sustainable product design

Dematerialise – products have become smaller in response to design and technological advances. This allows companies to make more profit from less, satisfying the three components of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Disassembly – understanding how products are taken apart as well as put together is crucial to reclaiming the materials for reuse. Recycling materials has a simple economic principle: if you’ve paid for it once, use it twice.

Desire – eco-design isn’t sexy. Reclaimed materials and products are unattractive. The challenge is for designers to make sustainability appealing.

Durability – referred to as the ‘teddy bear’ effect. Products that you keep through your life (a suitcase, a classic car), or pass on (a piano) are truly sustainable.Freecycling

For the ultimate in conscience-clean product recycling, try Freecycling. It encourages non-profit organisations to exchange unwanted resources such as office furniture. The trend started last year in the US and it is currently represented in the UK in London, Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent.

Visit freecycling.com or kcfreecycle.org, which has links to UK operations

Clive Grinyer is director of product experience for Orange Global Products

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