Are We Green Yet?

By Published on .

Nearly a year ago, Valerie Casey, global practice head of digital experiences at design firm IDEO, founded the Designers Accord, a coalition to bring environmental and social accountability to design. The firm-agnostic, non-profit body represents a global creative network that shares ideas about sustainability—practices that preserves natural ecosystems and support ethical social policies—and works toward collective solutions to problems that permeate every design firm and product business.

The designers, engineers, business consultants and corporations that adopt the Accord pool their methods, resources and tools to educate the entire community on how to approach a seemingly insurmountable problem with new solutions. Adopters are tasked to be, at once, ambassadors, students and teachers: they commit to bring the sustainability conversation to the public and to clients, implement internal green practices and share their design success.

While the Accord demonstrates how the design industry is taking responsibility, ironing out the rhetoric and building the structures for collective solutions, what's actually, tangibly, happening to make brands green? How far has the creative community come down the path of sustainability and to what degree are clients really embracing change?

To be able to tackle the sustainability question for clients, design firms are taking up the green challenge themselves. IDEO is greening its studios worldwide, supporting internal educational programs, integrating sustainable principles into their projects and sharing best practices and methodologies with the creative community, Casey says. "We also do not separate the considerations of sustainability from our design process—sustainability becomes another framework for making design decisions," she says. "We are able to prototype our ideas on ourselves and hone the way we talk about changing behaviors because we are actively changing our own."

With 100,000 designers and corporations having adopted the Designers Accord since its launch, IDEO is not alone. Innovation firm frog design, in addition to an internal initiative similar to IDEO's, committed $1 million of billable time to get its network of designers to talk about green design and develop product concepts, says frog principal designer J F Grossen. Ultimately, the ideas from the session were pared down to an alternative for fluorescent bulbs that contain hard-to-dispose-of mercury. The frog bulb has the shape and warmer light quality of a traditional incandescent, while using high-output LED as the light source and half the power of a fluorescent. While the project was a valuable exercise for frog designers on the one hand, it's a viable business opportunity on the other: frog is currently in talks to get the light bulb produced.

Even with green thinking incubating in design firms, realization of sustainable design hinges on clients' willingness to adopt those ideas. And while progress is being made, it's in small doses and comprehensive sustainable practices are still far off. "Companies are having trouble understanding their impacts from a systemic sustainability perspective," says Casey. "When companies just substitute green materials in inherently toxic products, they are missing the point."

Materials do seem to be the first and easiest answer to the sustainability question. Marketers ask about green materials more than anything else, says senior research scientist Cynthia Tyler of materials consultancy Material Connexion.

Another immediate step for brands is to minimize packaging, says Jonathan Ford, creative partner of branding and design firm Pearlfisher, because it means companies can buy less material and save money. Right now, Pearlfisher is light-weighting bottles for beverage clients up to 10-15 percent. But only so much material can be taken away without compromising the package's integrity. What's more, addressing what goes into a product only gets at a fraction of the environmental issue.

Bruce Mau
Bruce Mau
A bigger picture approach to product design—one that takes into account business realities— is necessary. "The brilliance of a sustainable idea is that it also makes sense for business; it's doing more of what we love with less of what we need," says Bruce Mau, designer, head of Bruce Mau Design and founder of Massive Change, the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit-turned-movement about design's role in social and environmental change. "It lines up perfectly with the efficiencies of business. The real problem in the business cycle is that the challenges we face demand heavy investment and long-term thinking, to know that we are going to be doing these things indefinitely." The real estate industry embodies this type of long-term thinking, he says, as an industry that looks at the costs of a building during its entire life, unlike product businesses that measure results on a quarterly basis, or retail that looks at monthly and even daily data.

For the product world, long-term thinking means looking beyond reduced packaging—what makes business sense in the short-term—to what Material Connexion's Tyler calls multiple-attribute change. "At one end of the spectrum, there are companies that are just looking at single-attribute changes: They're using recycled content and reducing packaging," Tyler says. "But that's only a short-term fix. You're not addressing factors such as your carbon footprint from the use of fossil fuels to produce the packaging, water usage or the toxic substances that may be in packaging."

Tyler cites the multiple-attribute sustainability model from William McDonough, author of the seminal green design text Cradle to Cradle and founder of product and process design firm MBDC that certifies sustainable products. Cradle to Cradle products take an environmental approach to material sourcing, material reutilization after product life, and energy efficiency, use of renewable energy and water stewardship in the production process.

A Bruce Mau design project, the L7 carpet line for Berkshire Hathaway's Shaw Industries, embodies the Cradle to Cradle model. When consumers are finished with the carpet, they can call a 1-800 number affixed to the back to access a service that ensures the carpet never goes to a landfill. "It's what William McDonough calls a 'technical nutrient cycle.'" Mau says. "In the same way that the forest floor has a biological nutrient cycle, there is no garbage on the forest floor. When something falls to the forest floor, it becomes material for the next generation of life. That's really the new concept in manufacturing, so people are working on redesigning the way we do things so that products go out one end of the factory and come back in the other end. It becomes a circle and not a line."

Bruce Mau Design's principle work revolves around large scale strategic transformations. The firm is helping a company with one million employees transform its global supply chain into a sustainability chain, he says. Mau and his team are looking beyond product design to the company's overall process. Similarly, the area where IDEO offers the greatest value is not in material alternatives and production efficiencies, Casey says. "We help companies and partners think about the basic assumptions of their businesses, and enable them to innovate through new business or service models."

Material Connexion's... Materials
Material Connexion's... Materials
Embracing long-term change and new service models—and translating those commitments to the consumer conscience—means going beyond the forces of the market to a brand's essence, Pearlfisher's Ford says. "Clients need to embed goodness into their offer, instead of sticking it on the outside," he says. "The argument has moved on; any environmental message that is going to be credible to the consumer has to be built into the brand offer." When brands suddenly launch a green version, "this is where it starts to go wrong," Ford says. "What does that do to the brand? That makes consumers think that the original is not environmental or ethical." Instead, brands need to build environmental concern into the product in the first place and only talk to the consumer about a great product. "When you express your brand, you can't say everything all at once, you have to say one thing very clearly and simply and the environmental and ethical element can only be embedded within that," he says.

And this is where established brands hit the green wall. Saddled by years of entrenched practices, it's difficult for large marketers to realign and reinvent.

Sometimes it's easier to start from scratch than retro-fit sustainable design, Material Connexion's Tyler says, illustrating how new brands win where existing products fail through the diaper debate: disposable or cloth? "A life cycle assessment was done of both diapers to find out what is the environmental impact of the entire lifecycle of cloth diapers that you have to wash and disposables that you throw away," she says. "As expected, the cloth diaper is going to use more water resources; the disposable diaper is going to have an impact by ending up in a landfill. An alternative approach is an insert for a diaper that goes in the toilet, will break down, is completely biodegradable and poses no harm to the bacteria that are in waste water treatment plants." In this case, organic-cotton cloth or new material for Pampers wasn't the solution, it was new product innovation—the gDiaper, a Cradle to Cradle certified product currently on the market.

"We've met with clients that are now reconsidering their design process," Tyler says. "Instead of taking an existing product and asking the question: 'How can we green it?' They're stepping back and saying: 'How do we design a new product that is sustainable rather than less bad?' Starting from scratch is a lot easier to do. It costs a lot less than trying to reconfigure something."

Valerie Casey
Valerie Casey
So, with the sustainable design framework comes new product innovation— rethinking the product itself and how it's consumed. Mau, who says the great innovation of this era will be the breakthroughs that reduce environmental and social impact, poses the age-old design conundrum that he stresses shouldn't get lost in the green shuffle: "If I make a product and it's not as compelling as the product you already have, you're not going to replace it. So, if I'm going to make something that's more environmentally intelligent, it also has to be more exciting, more compelling, more beautiful and sexier than what you already have.

"For the last five decades we've been telling people to get out of their cars, and every year for the last 50 years, we've done the opposite: We've made more cars than the year before," he says. "As a human global culture we've proved by now that the way we're going to get out of our car is by making something else more exciting. That's the power of design."

Mau says we're now experiencing an explosion of innovation that hasn't happened since the beginning of the last century. "This is a paradigm shift," he says. "The people who will win will be the people who figure it out most effectively, who integrate it most completely and who lead the way."

In the end, says Mau, design is the method by which we will overcome the great challenges we face. "If we don't make it beautiful, we won't have a future. So we need design and we need to apply it in the critical areas of our ecology. It's fundamentally optimistic; designers don't have the luxury of cynicism, being negative is not being productive. It frees design from the realm of the visual to be able to think big picture about the cycle of life."

Most Popular
In this article: