Slowly but surely

Designers’ complicity in the promotion of disposability undermines their environmental credentials, but even though true eco-design is still some way off, practitioners can make a difference by making products sustainably, says Scott Billings

In 1964, designer Ken Garland led a call for graphic designers to consider how their skills might be turned to ‘more useful and lasting forms of communication’ than those demanded by ‘gimmick merchant’ clients. The First Things First manifesto, as it was called, was a cry for less triviality, transience and wastefulness, and for more value.

A second FTF manifesto, drawn up in 2000 by Adbusters and signed by 33 design industry figures, also lamented how graphic designers’ ‘time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential, at best’, in a culture of ‘uncontested’ consumerism. Of course, it’s not only graphic designers who are complicit in the creation of desire and the promotion of disposability: in our screen-based, electronic gadget-filled lives, the hand of the industrial designer is also ever-present. And FTF’s notions could apply just as much here as in graphic design.

Ethics aside for a moment, it’s clear that ‘uncontested consumerism’ helps enormously to pay the designer’s bills and keep the whole merry-go-round spinning. Yet the huge groundswell in support for Green practices has planted environmental considerations in the agendas of most consumer-facing businesses, making unfettered materialism – delivered at any cost – a much harder sell. Now, commercial designers and clients are facing a moral conundrum together: how to keep producing masses of stuff for the market, while committing to reducing waste and environmental harm.

For consumer electronics companies, the answer seems to lie in improving the Green credentials of (usually just some of) their products, rather than a wholesale rethink on how many of those products we actually need.

Indeed, changing the business practices through which global companies have thrived is surely like turning the proverbial oil tanker around – a gradual, lumbering process.

Fortunately, Green sells. South Korean groups LG and Samsung, as well as Chinese company ZTE, have all recently unveiled mobile phone handsets with built-in solar-charging panels, for example. Good news? Perhaps, but as consumers ditch their current units in favour of these eco-powered entrants, the conundrum rears its head again: sustainable design equals more demand equals more resources. Truly ecological design demands a shift away from planned obsolescence and constant marketing.

Despite this, designers shouldn’t find the moral scruple too debilitating, because it is design which is instrumental in finding better materials, more efficient practices, better packaging and many other improvements that can ameliorate the unavoidable cost ofproducing and distributing products on a mass scale. To put it another way, if we’re going to have products delivered on a mass scale, they may as well be well designed.

So, how are we doing? Well, not surprisingly, Greenpeace International has been keeping a watchful eye on the electronics industry and earlier this year published its Green Electronics Survey to answer just this question. A few big companies – Apple, Microsoft, Nintendo and Philips included – were conspicuously absent from the report, having declined Greenpeace’s invitation to take part. From the 15 companies which did participate, 50 products were assessed in terms of their use of hazardous substances, power consumption, product life cycle and the environmental costs of manufacture.

Overall, it’s good news. Hazardous chemicals continue to be phased out, while the growing use of LED displays in laptop computers saves energy and avoids the need for mercury in backlights. In larger products, such as TV sets, more post-consumer recycled plastic is being used, although computers and mobile phones, on the whole, are lagging behind in this regard.

‘The electronics industry continues to make progress in launching products with reduced environmental impacts. Product scores are increasingly closer together, suggesting a more competitive environment in a “race to the top” to produce truly Green products,’ reports Greenpeace.

Of special note is the Lenovo L2440x monitor, which was found to be way ahead of the competition in terms of toxic materials, and also features recycled plastic for nearly 30 per cent of its plastic parts and an LED-backlit display. Toshiba topped the notebook category with its Portégé R600 model, thanks to the elimination of many toxic chemicals.

The highest-scoring mobile phone was Samsung’s SGH-F268, which is built without the use of brominated flame retardants, substances that can release hazardous bromine when burnt for disposal. Nokia’s 6210 Navigator was the Greenest of the smart phone/PDAs tested, mainly thanks to its energy efficiency and product life cycle.

Interestingly, the Pearl 8130 product submitted by leading PDA brand Blackberry lost a lot of points because of poor energy efficiency, failing even to meet the Energy Star standard.

Although Greenpeace International’s survey is far from exhaustive and relies on voluntary product submissions, it nonetheless paves the way for better products in the future. ‘Taking the top scores within each criteria and product category, a pathway to the design of truly Green electronics products becomes clear,’ says the report. In other words, a combination of all the best attributes in each category would create a significantly Greener product than currently available.

The next step is for these piecemeal Green practices to be integrated into a company’s whole manufacturing, distribution, marketing and end-of-life processes, replacing environmental lip service with a new ethos. First things first, and slowly, slowly the tanker may turn.

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