Time to make a difference

Designers are missing out on the business opportunities provided by integrating ecologically sound thinking into their work. Mike Evamy suggests there should be a network of information for designers who want to make a difference but lack expertise.

Let’s face it – we are not saints when it comes to the environment. There are A4-sized holes in the ozone layer with each of our names on. We all try to do our bit. But everyone knows that running a design business – whether it is creating packaging, products, point-of-sale material or magazines – involves a certain amount of denial when the issue of the environment rears its head.

Many designers would like to think they could nudge their clients towards more environmentally-friendly policies. But they feel inhibited by their own lack of knowledge and are often unaware of any detrimental effects their design decisions may have. They are also wary of upsetting their clients by daring to suggest they do things differently.

That’s how many designers feel, and recent research confirms it. However, others believe that the opportunities are improving for design consultants to clean up their eco-credentials. There is evidence of a rapidly-expanding market for environmental support from designers and this market holds real kudos for consultancies prepared to commit even conventional, non-specialist design thinking to it.

If it seems that the part designers can play in saving the world, when compared to oil companies, nuclear plants or car manufacturers, is tiny – well, it is. However, that argument does not sit comfortably with the one that has, for the past 30 years, been made in support of design: that it has a tangible effect on business and the economy.

The scale of design’s contribution to the UK economy was revealed for the first time last month in a report prepared for the Design Council. The British manufacturing industry spends 10bn (2.6 per cent of its turnover) on product development and design each year. This is more than it spends on research and development, and is spread more widely. It was also claimed that an increase of a third on in-house design by manufacturing industry is associated with a boost in the growth of the economy of 0.1 per cent (gross domestic product grew in 1996 by 2.2 per cent). This is not an insignificant impact, and no-one can say anymore that the design industry lacks influence.

One problem is that designers attempting to have a greening influence on their clients have been seen as making a rod for their own backs. Research by Dr Emma Dewberry at the Open University on designers trying to adopt eco-design measures, reveals that they have generally been reacting to briefs from their clients, rather than championing change. Although they have an empathy with the natural environment, their understanding of environmental issues is limited. They feel confused and are unable to form any kind of long-term design strategy.

Dewberry, now at Cambridge’s Judge Institute of Management Studies, insists there are opportunities for eco-design in the course of conventional projects. “If clients said they wanted to do a cost-reduction exercise on this product, they would be applying some degree of environmental decision-making. It would lead to cost reduction, but also to some environmental improvement in the product. Rather than increasing costs, which is what most companies associate with environment policies, much of the time it is about cost reduction, efficiency and effectiveness.”

A good example is BT’s review, redesign and rewrite of the preface section to the 186 editions of its phone books. A 1996 DBA Design Effectiveness Award winner, the new printing needed 1300 fewer aluminium plates, cut customer enquiries by half, and saved BT 75 000 in 18 months.

Cost is key for clients. According to the 1997 UK Business & The Environment Trends Survey of the top 1000 companies, 58 per cent still see costs as limiting business action on environmental issues. However, businesses are becoming more aware of the business benefits: 47 per cent of companies claim that environmental programmes have improved their profitability, and only 11 per cent said that they reduced profits.

This surely means that major businesses are becoming more receptive to business-oriented eco-innovation. Tesco knows the business benefits of design but has no particular environmental policy. Nevertheless, Jeremy Lindley, design controller for Tesco’s “non-food” division, says consultants can get the environment on to their clients’ agendas. “But it has to be combined with something tangible that the client will appreciate. That can be an image and marketing advantage, or cost. And the real driver would be cost. So, if you can combine your benefit to the environment with a cost advantage for the client, then they’ll do it.”

It is the concept stage of any design project that has the greatest impact on costs. It is then that designers need to marshal knowledge about environmental alternatives in materials, processes, energy consumption, recycling, reuse or re-manufacture. But, at present, they feel the information and support is scarce. There is nowhere to go for quick, accessible, relevant data and tools they can use. A survey of Chartered Society of Designers members by the Centre for Sustainable Design showed that designers get what knowledge they have from the press or from their clients, rather than from training or other sources. Without knowledge, they lack the confidence to push the environmental issue with clients. It needs a strategic effort from design bodies to co-ordinate support, perhaps in the form of evening lectures.

However, new resources and tools are emerging. The CfSD is publishing an eco-design training package, including a 200-page manual, diskettes and a CD-ROM. It is intended as a training tool for manufacturers, but offers checklists, “cut-down” life-cycle analysis (LCA) methods and case histories that could be valuable for consultants wishing to increase their expertise. On 17 July, the CfSD is holding a conference, Towards Sustainable Product Design, in London, that would act as a good introduction for designers to the subject and to potential clients. A book that anyone interested in the area should read is Driving Eco-Innovation, by Claude Fussler of Dow Europe and Peter James (Pitman Publishing), which includes a simple model – the “eco-compass” – for businesses to assess the environmental trade-offs of products. Large companies like Philips are developing their own cut-down LCAs that enable quick environmental scans of alternatives early on in project development.

Getting to grips with the principles of eco-design may demand some study, but it can hardly fail to pay off. According to Anne Chick, who conducted the CfSD survey, businesses that need environmental design expertise have nowhere to go. “Most of the people who attend our conferences are environmental managers from large companies. They tell us they need knowledgeable designers in their area. They are not experienced in commissioning design, and they want guidance.”

Chick cites the area of designing corporate environmental reports, in which Dragon International has virtually cleaned up because it has no competition. Managers commissioning environmental reports are unaware of the design issues, such as who the audience is, but want to be made aware. She adds that the companies needing them tend to be large multinationals – exactly the kind of businesses most design consultants want to penetrate. There are new awards schemes starting up, too. The Association of Certified Chartered Accountants has placed emphasis on design in its environmental reporting award.

“It’s not just an ethical issue,” says the CfSD’s Martin Charter, “it’s a business issue. A lot of the design profession is entirely missing out on the opportunity to offer value-added services. If the clients don’t know there are long, medium or short-term opportunities to do with environment on the one hand, and sustainability on the other hand, surely that’s an opportunity for advisors.”

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