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With businesses everywhere looking to achieve greater levels of sustainability, John Stones examines the track record of three design-led companies, and asks if upgrading products rather than replacing them could be the next logical step

Product design and sustainability are not the happiest of bedfellows. Business models have long been predicated on planned obsolescence, creating a perpetual cycle of fashion that gobbles up resources and often involves eco-noxious materials and manufacturing processes. The end-of-life part of the equation is rarely given much thought as last year’s big thing goes to landfill, and possibly to leak toxic chemicals into the environment.

However, as consumers become increasingly Green-conscious, companies big and small have to rethink their businesses. Saab, Apple and Herman Miller are three brands with strong reputations for design innovation in their respective areas – cars, computers and furniture. But how is sustainability built into their design processes?

In the future, the real challenge for designers will not be to create new, ‘sustainable’ products so desirable that we junk our existing ones and replace them with shiny new Green versions, but to rethink products and services completely so that the cycle of obsolescence is broken. Imagine, for instance, an iPod that is upgradable rather than replaceable. Process and service design will have to slowly supplant product design, which may itself become, if not obsolete, then less of a design priority.

Greenpeace International is among those organisations pushing for companies to take full financial responsibility for their products, both in terms of specifying and designing, and also at the end of a product’s life. Already, under the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive, car makers in the European Union have to meet targets for the recovery and recycling of cars, enforcing consideration of the use of toxic materials and ease of recycling at the design stage. GI toxics campaigner Zeina Alhajj hopes companies will adopt a more long-term vision where, for instance, products could be upgraded rather than replaced, and where they offer services rather than simply products.


From all its press coverage, you would think that the most innovative of Apple’s recent launches is the iPhone. From the traditional viewpoints of form and interface, perhaps it is, but from an environmental perspective the product is deeply old-fashioned and has been condemned by environmental activists for its toxic components.

By contrast, the MacBook Air laptop, although less rapturously received, is the first Apple product to take Green issues fully into account. Its screen is mercury- and arsenic-free, the circuit boards contain no toxic PVC and BFRs, and it is very energy efficient. Apple’s packaging has always been admired but with the MacBook Air there is only half as much of it, and it is treated to an oatmeal-coloured plaque setting out its eco credentials on the website – something Apple neglects to give to the iPhone.

Greenpeace International toxics campaigner Zeina Alhajj welcomes the advances in the MacBook Air, and says overall the laptop scores five out of ten on its assessment, which puts it equal with the Sony Vaio as the ‘Greenest’ laptop according to Greenpeace’s criteria. However, Alhajj says there is much more that could be done. Greenpeace has been keeping up the pressure on Apple with its high-profile campaign, Alhajj explains, precisely because it is seen as a leader in product design and its innovations are copied.

The forthcoming redesign of the MacBook range, still in shiny plastic, will be the acid test of how serious Apple is about sustainability. The beautiful white and translucent plastic shells that have been integral to Jonathan Ive’s designs are not eco-friendly, unlike the recyclable aluminium enclosures of recent Apple products. Perhaps this trend will be continued with the new MacBook, although Apple declines to comment or discuss its future plans.


You have to feel sorry for Saab. The Swedish marque has been searching for a raison d’être since being bought by General Motors in the 1990s. As the environment has supplanted safety on the list of consumer concerns, Saab has thrown its weight behind bioethanol. It now has BioPower versions of all its models, running on a mixture that includes bioethanol, and Saab vaunts the increase in power and decrease in emissions.

Unsurprisingly, Saab has looked on in dismay as a biofuel backlash has developed as its unexpected impact on the environment and food production became clear. Bad news for Saab when the Chancellor recently announced that the fuel duty rebate for biofuels will expire from 2010. It hasn’t helped that General Motors’ outspoken vice-chairman Bob Lutz declared global warming a ‘crock of shit’ earlier this year, having publicly derided Saab owners a few years back as ‘professors with pipes and tweed jackets with suede leather elbow patches’. Saab prefers to call itself a ‘premium car manufacturer for independent-minded drivers’.

Sales have dwindled, but, undaunted, the company launched the well-received 9-X BioHybrid concept car at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. It is an interesting design which, perhaps wisely, avoids putting its environmental eggs in a single basket.

It relies on hybrid electrical and bioethanol technologies, wrapped in a package intended to be exciting rather than worthy. And what looks like a sunroof is, in fact, a solar panel – a neat design solution to one of the traditionally neglected areas of a car. It is, perhaps, one of the few specifically design-, rather than engineering-, related solutions geared to sustainability on the car. ‘It is a top-up for the hybrid system,’ explains GM Europe vice-president for design Mark Adams, adding that the car signals ‘the future direction of Saab’.

Herman Miller

‘Aesthetics don’t always rule our process,’ says Gabe Wing, a chemical engineer who heads up the four-strong Design for Environment team overseeing processes and materials for all of Herman Miller’s product design. ‘Often an early design concept looks nothing like the final product,’ he adds.

Does that mean Herman Miller is moving from product design to process design? ‘There has to be a balance. There is design in everything we do,’ is Wing’s diplomatic answer. His team will sit in at the initial designer briefing and assist throughout the design process. For instance, for the Mirra office chair, designed by German consultancy Studio 7.5, the DfE’s work meant that PVC – a standard material in office furniture, but one that involves a toxic manufacturing process – could be dumped in favour of a new material called thermoplastic urethane, or TPU.

Closing the loop in the materials cycle remains a challenge. While the products may be recyclable, there are no ready ‘harvests’. The products are no longer in Herman Miller’s control once sold, though it does broker re-sale and reconditioning of its products. While the costs and sustainability of end-of-life take-back are complicated, many of the materials used are the same as those in the automotive and electronics industry.

The desirability and longevity of Herman Miller chairs render their recyclability relatively academic, although notional recyclability is only part of the game.

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