Design policies for a sustainable future

This is an old piece I wrote for the Torino World Design Capital site. It may feel a tad outdated and/or may need refinement, but the gist of it still holds true, imho, we still need to collectively address the challenges of our emerging future and no single country, company or organization can address it alone. Perhaps its now a global responsibility for all of us …

Sustainable design, climate change, the environment and renewable energy sources are all top of the mind issues in our lives today. By virtue of their profession and their sensibilities, designers and their colleagues are often at the forefront of the movement to address these issues, trying to effect change, create awareness and make a difference through their work and actions.

But all of these initiatives – whether its a regional group like Dott07, a particular conference like TED in Africa, or a specific discipline within the industry such as the AIGA – are each and of themselves independent activities or calls for action. With time running short with respect to the scope, scale and magnitude of the changes required, not to mention side effects of the rapid economic growth of Asian economies like India’s and China’s, is this enough?

European nations have taken the lead on being ecologically sensitive, focusing on the problems of climate change and the need to minimise humanity’s footprint on this Earth which we all share. Yet not once has there been a mention from any design industry association to incorporate sound green product design principles or sustainable business processes and practices at the national policy level. No attempts to lay down the law, to establish rules and regulations or to set out the methods and principles for designers at every level and from every discipline to create a systemic, large-scale change in the way design is practiced in order to save the environment and conserve our scarce resources.

But how can laws and regulations change the fact that even if the UK were to stop ALL CO2 emissions, China is opening two new coal power stations every week that would negate any benefits within two years? What is the point of making changes in design policy at the EU level, when India and China combined are ten times larger in size and population? What we don’t realise is the effect that market size, economic strength and consumer choices can have on the way products are designed and manufactured or the way business processes and practices can be made more sustainable.

The EU’s stringent regulations on electronic components that went into effect just over a year ago have already made a difference in the way that consumer products are designed and manufactured. The Directives on the Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) are such that even if the products are invented or designed in the USA or manufactured in China or Taiwan, if the manufacturers are at all interested in selling to the European Market, they must comply by these regulations. And once you’ve invested in cleaner, greener products and their respective assembly lines, it makes more economic sense to manufacture and distribute such products throughout the world than to have two lines of products for differing environmental requirements.

Similarly, consumer choices can directly affect how brands are labelled, marketed and distributed. When Emma Ginger of MakesAChange, UK, an ethical consumer information guide, recommends a fair trade, eco-friendly product to her customers, it is after she has carefully evaluated the company’s practices, it’s packaging and labelling choices, the materials and processes involved in the product’s manufacture, in fact, every aspect of the entire system down to how well the farmers or daily wages labourers in far away Ethiopia or Bangladesh are treated. Sustainable design practices today are not just about choosing organic, fair trade carrots that are packaged in biodegradable, compostable plastic, she says, if the supplier such as Tesco or Carrefour then puts a metal, non recyclable, non degradable sticker on it. The extra amount that they paid for “eco friendly” packaging, in order to serve the desires of the discerning eco-conscious customer, is wasted entirely by that one single, final act of thoughtlessness.

Sustainability in design practice thus means that sensitivity to the environment must become an essential aspect of the design criteria at EVERY single step of the entire business model or process. If your packaging is recyclable but your labels are not; or if your printer is energy efficient and recyclable but the packaging consists of superfluous, wasteful polystyrene and plastic, what is the ultimate experience for the end user? Frustration at the stupidity and wastefulness of the contradictory messages being sent by your brand.

Designers know they hold the key to more sustainable, responsible future. What is needed now is not just a variety of government regulated environmental or carbon emissions policies, but the willingness to address all the issues at the root level, by the entire design industry. As policy. As belief. As a mark of faith for future.

Originally published World Design Capital Torino 2008, written in late 2007

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