Designers warm to global issues

Could designers do more for the environment, or are clients holding them back?

News that the Kyoto treaty on cutting greenhouse emissions will be ratified, despite the absence of the Americans, is welcomed, but so much more remains to be done to prevent further damage to the ozone layer.

The design industry can play its part in helping the planet, particularly through environmentally-friendly product and packaging design. But how much of an effort does it make and is it working towards a happier environment with one hand tied behind its back?

Consumer expectations force producers, and everyone else in the mix, to keep an eye on cost, ‘making the environment a cost issue’, says Richard Williams, managing partner of packaging group Williams Murray Hamm.

‘Consumers want a product at the lowest possible price, therefore we use tried and tested methods of packaging because developing new lines cost money. But these tried and tested methods might not be the most environmentally-friendly method available. We still over-package in this country. I think we need to convince people that lots of layers of presentation are unnecessary,’ he says.

Design Bridge Structure managing director Nick Verebelyi believes the throw-away culture, an obstacle to a recyclable-friendly society, is partly due to the lack of value in products and packs. ‘Why re-use something that has worn out before its time?’ he asks.

Consumers’ over-consumption is one barrier to making the environment a key consideration for designers, says Helen Iball of The Designing for Sustainability Research Group, as is the lack of role models in the field and the issue’s relatively low profile.

She identifies a need to endorse and promote best practice through things like the Design Museum’s Design Sense award, which educates designers and the public about the possibilities of sustainability, promotes sustainable design and recognises our wider social responsibilities.

Iball is at pains to point out that sustainability in design is the real issue, rather than simply the environment. ‘It is not just about using less material,’ she explains, ‘but considering where the material comes from, the processes required, the working conditions of the labour force and the real requirements of the users.

‘Design decisions need to be made with the environment in mind, but there is also a need to explore social, ethical, economic and cultural impacts and needs,’ Iball adds. But she thinks changes for the better have occurred and will continue to do so.

Williams believes that clients are ‘generally environmentally-aware’, but Richard Seymour, co-founder of product design group Seymour Powell, thinks companies need to be reminded of their responsibilities to the environment.

‘You need to be a force to steer [manufacturers] in a direction. Any change to the way they do things is going to be painful for them, so you need to appeal to them on a level they understand, which is usually cost,’ says Seymour.

Most consultancies are smallto medium-sized enterprises and, if they are faced with an important and intimidating client, the designers are more likely to react to a brief rather than champion change.

But Seymour argues that, ‘Designers can get the environment on to the agenda by talking about it.

‘But sometimes you will be the only person with a conscience sitting around the table. We are aware as we can be and try to bring [the environment issue] in as part of the discussion process, but it doesn’t always happen,’ Seymour concedes.

Consultancies can get the issue to the fore but appealing to clients’ better natures needs to be combined with something tangible, to show the client that the environment is not just a moral issue but a business one too. Cost is the driver, but clients can also be turned if presented with an image and marketing advantage.

Iball believes that championing these issues must be supported by higher education teaching and research ‘which then effects and contributes to good theory, practice, journalism and so on’.

Thanks to legislation and the desire to appeal to environmentally-aware consumers, most companies have some sort of environmental policy, but only a few seem to genuinely care about the planet.

Philips says it designs its products with sustainability and the environment in mind, applying five principles during the design process, which include reducing volume in packaging and cutting down on energy consumption. ‘The users prefer a brand that acts in a sustainable way,’ explains senior consultant on sustainable design at Philips Design Simona Rocchi.

The Body Shop has a long history of campaigning for the environment on issues ranging from renewable energy to global warming and is regularly involved in campaigns like the recently adopted ‘Boycott Esso’, which is designed to persuade parent company Exxon Mobil to be more environmentally responsible.

The Body Shop also uses environmentally-friendly design throughout its stores and in its products and packaging.

‘Our designs consider energy use through things such as lighting and aims to incorporate materials that are recyclable and, ideally, reclaimed. [It includes the use of] recycled yoghurt pot material, hemp board and reclaimed railway sleepers,’ says a spokesman for the retailer.

The Body Shop also uses minimal packaging with recyclable materials and uses recycled materials in some accessory products.

The Royal Institute of British Architects, meanwhile, is waiting for planning permission from Westminster Council to install wind turbines on the Institute’s roof to generate electricity.

The old adage of every little counts remains true, but there needs to be a sea change in world attitudes to the environment and sustainability before the two issues become much more than just a bolt-on within research, development and design.

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