Designing Products as if the Earth Really Mattered

by Edwin Datschefski

Products are the source of all environmental problems. It may seem surprising, but most environmental problems are caused by unintentional side-effects of the manufacture, use and disposal of products.

An individual product may look harmless enough, but the environmental damage it causes happens elsewhere, out of sight and mind, "hidden" from the consumer and often from the designer as well.

Major issues such as pollution, deforestation, species loss and global warming are all by-products of the activities that provide consumers with food, transport, shelter, clothing and the endless array of consumer goods on the market today. I call this the "Hidden Ugliness" of products.

Many environmental impacts are literally invisible. Vapors and gases float around unseen. Pesticides and other pollutants can be found in perfectly clean-looking water, radiation from nuclear or electrical sources can't be seen or sensed without special equipment.

More than 30 tons of waste are produced for every ton of product that reaches the consumer. And then, 98 percent of those products are thrown away within six months. When you include these hidden impacts of manufacturing, we each consume our own body weight in materials every two days. If there is no plan or system for product take-backs, full re-use and cyclicity, then every product sold represents a toxic release.

A computer is about one-quarter plastic. The candy-colored translucent plastic called polycarbonate is the same stuff that CDs are made from. It is made from phosgene (which was used as a poison gas in the First World War) and Bisphenol A (an endocrine disruptor). The gold in the circuit boards may have come from Romania, where a gold mining accident caused one of the worst river pollution accidents in Europe. The life span of a computer is only about three to five years. Every year about 30 million computers are dumped, incinerated, shipped as waste exports or put into storage in people's attics. All over the world, designers, manufacturers and consumers are starting to go beyond the way products look and perform, to consider what goes on when products are made and what happens when they are eventually disposed of. An award-winning chair may look beautiful, but can it really represent the pinnacle of mankind's genius if it is made using polluting methods or by exploiting workers?

Sustainability is inevitable. It will be a trillion-dollar business in the next five years. BP Amoco, Shell, DaimlerChrysler, Cargill Dow Polymers and Xerox have all initiated billion-dollar projects involving solar panels, fuel cells, bioplastics and remanufacturing.

Design is the key intervention point for making radical improvements in the environmental performance of products. Environmental thinking is an abundant source for innovation. Product developers are running out of ideas. Almost all new product areas are refinements of existing ones - the smaller laptop computer, the sleeker car, the wider-screen TV. When the enormous might of the new digital economy can only offer fridges that alert you to being out of milk, you know that manufacturers are looking for direction. Sustainability can give that new direction.

We have to create products that have "total beauty." These products, also known as "sustainable products," are those that are the best for people, profits and the planet.

When you've been looking at sustainable products for a while, you notice the same solutions come up time and again. Based on a review of 500 products, I found that 99 percent of all environmental innovations use one or more of these five principles:

* CYCLIC. The product is made from compostable organic materials or from minerals that are continuously recycled in a closed loop. Instead of emitting waste and poisons, they biodegrade to produce materials that can be "food" for something else.
* SOLAR. The product in manufacture and use consumes only renewable energy that is cyclic and safe. As the US Department of Energy notes: "Each day more solar energy falls to the Earth than the total amount of energy the planet's 6 billion inhabitants would consume in 25 years. We've hardly begun to tap the potential of solar energy."
* SAFE. All releases to air, water, land or space are food for other systems. A safe process or product cannot chemically or physically disrupt people or other life.
* EFFICIENT. The product in its manufacture and use requires 90 percent less energy, materials and water than products providing equivalent utility in 1990.
* SOCIAL. Product manufacture and use supports basic human rights and natural justice. Human capital is our most valuable resource and we should look after it. Exploitation and maltreatment of our fellow man is unsupportable, yet companies do it all the time because such abuse is hidden to the end-user.

We often hear that the world is running out of resources. But there is still the same amount of atoms around. We have simply converted atoms into molecules that are of no use to us. With continuous cycling of both organic and inorganic materials, we will never run out of the resources we need.

Excerpted from The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products by Edwin Datschefski,