If you’re carrying a Nokia, driving a BMW or wearing a pair of Nikes, you have – without knowing it – been supporting leaps and bounds in the progress of environmentally friendly design. Did I get your attention? Then allow me to explain.
We’ve all read the articles and watched the special reports. We’ve seen the movies and listened to the radio talk shows. We’ve been told how bad we’ve been, how poorly we are treating the Earth, and how our reckless use of resources and hunger for fossil fuels has drastically altered the environment with dire consequences, not only for humans but countless species of plants and animals as well. Even if you are one of the few remaining sceptics of global warming, or doubt whether or not mankind has contributed to its existence, then consider the following: Is it acceptable that 1/3 of the world’s landfills are made up of single use packaging? That there is an island of garbage the size of NSW accumulating in the Pacific Ocean? That 80% of computer equipment that we ‘recycle’ is in fact shipped to China and dumped recklessly, contaminating soil and water as well as off-gassing toxic chemicals when the locals melt circuit boards in search of precious metals? If that seems like a good way to continue living then I would advise moving to somewhere like Mars, because at our current rate the Earth will eventually have a similar look and feel.
However this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and there are numerous scientists, biologists, world leaders, entrepreneurs and concerned global citizens who have rightfully brought these problems to our attention. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by such a seemingly bleak outlook, and the search for ways in which we can be part of the solution is ongoing. But I’m not here to tell you to use less toilet paper, to stop driving, to fashion your own clothing out of twine and potato sacks, or to give up and consider yourself doomed. We are constantly bombarded with instructions on what not to do, what not to buy, and in a sense how not to live. If tomorrow we were to give everything up…our cars, mobile phones, computers, stereo systems and kitchen appliances, we would certainly lower our combined carbon footprint. Yet those landfills I mentioned earlier would grow exponentially; filled with objects that were never designed to be thrown away, and as a society we would take a giant leap backwards.
Our current lifestyle in the 21st century was forged in the fires of the Industrial Revolution, and while its original philosophy of ‘burn first and ask questions later’ has long outlived its welcome, it’s important to realise this is not something we can undo. Stepping into the future means understanding, processing and embracing the past. Even my professional title of ‘Industrial Designer’ harks back to an old system of thinking. Yet this system – the industrial way of doing things via mass production, consumption and disposal – actually contains the key to how we can move forward.
Like it or not, we are a capitalist society that has been built upon the consumerist cycle of creation and destruction, of buying and throwing away and the philosophy of ‘out with the old; in with the new’. To look at the current economic and environmental situation and react with anti-capitalist sentiments will surely seal our fate, because we can’t crawl back into a cave, un-invent the wheel and smother the fire – and here is precisely where the line between the perception and reality of being green becomes fuzzy.
There are many obvious ways of proving that you care about the environment, but for some reason everyone thinks you have to either be a total dag, a hippy or an in-your-face eco-warrior to support green products and services. This is not the case. No offence if you own one, but if the future of automobile design looks like a Toyota Prius, then thanks but I’ll just stick with a bicycle. Don’t get me wrong, Toyota saw a market opportunity and invested the time, effort and significant cost to bring the first successful hybrid to the masses, and its success speaks for itself. It’s also made some other large auto manufacturers look rather irresponsible and uncaring. But in a recent test, a BMW 520d with regenerative braking trumped the Prius in terms of fuel efficiency over distance. Out of the blue? I think not. BMW didn’t react to a market opportunity, green trend or government pressure to produce a singular environmentally friendly product. It’s simply part of their core brand philosophy, and has been since 1973 when they appointed their first environmental officer – an industry first. While the Prius’ claim to fame is efficiency during use, this is only a small piece of the puzzle. BMW ensures that its vehicles are at least 85% recyclable and 95% reusable, because they understand that a car is simply a massively complex product that has to be treated with a closed lifecycle consideration to avoid irresponsible and environmentally damaging production and disposal.
This is not to say drop everything and go and buy a BMW – I’d wager a guess that they sell more vehicles based on name brand, image, quality and good looks than they do on their inherent standards of responsibility – but by building these standards into their corporate charter they have ensured a natural pace of evolution rather than trying to bash people over the head with a green stick. Evolution only goes one way, the future will not be made up of dorky electric powered cars like the significant but ill-conceived GM EV1. The immediate future will be about cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels made from non-edible crops. This will ensure that we can evolve our combustion-powered vehicles into environmentally benign yet still aesthetically pleasing modes of transport.
How about the simple things? What about that cool new phone, pair of shoes or laptop? Nokia produces arguably some of the most slick and svelte phones out there, and likewise has one of the most well thought out and well-established environmental strategies in the world. This spans all the way from how they handle raw materials and manufacturing, to customer use and energy efficiency, to reuse, recovery, recycling and disposal. Yet their products aren’t painted green, slathered in recycling logos or overtly marketed as eco-products. They, like BMW, adopted their own stringent environmental standards as a practice of good business, and they did so before Europe’s RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) legislation came into force. Nokia’s competitors such as Motorola, Samsung and LG have also been doing their part, yet Nokia has realised that transparency is the most important element of being green; they currently have eco declarations for all their products available online and publish more environmental reports and updates than anyone else in the industry. So is it just the common unconsciousness that prevents Nokia from being the green beacon of the cell phone industry? That’s a part of the story, but they, like an increasing number of companies, are building a foundation of business that seeks to make terms like ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’ synonymous with simply ‘good’ design, manufacturing and life-cycle practices.
So you’d rather take a walk than talk on the phone or go for a drive? Then take a look at Nike. Nike’s environmental practices, like Nokia and BMW, are made transparent through their press releases and corporate responsibility reports. Yet unlike the others, Nike has been working on both sides of the eco-inherent and eco-obvious fence. In 2005 they premiered their ‘Considered’ line of shoes, an outdoor-inspired series that leveraged green design as its own aesthetic, with raw materials, earthy colours and a fascinating construction method that used a single lace to hold the shoe’s few parts together. An achievement in technology and design, the Considered shoes sold well as a niche product and allowed Nike to feel out a growing market segment. Understanding where their efforts would be better placed, Considered was transformed from merely a product line into a corporate initiative. Though it may not look it, the current Air Jordan XX3 is the first green sports shoe, defined by Nike’s dedication to reducing waste, lowering energy consumption and using innovative construction methods to reduce the use of adhesives, making the shoes easier to manufacture and dissemble for recycling.
I could go on, but the point is that you can support the efforts of environmentalism and look good doing it. By being educated and informed, and seeking out companies that do the right thing, you are literally using your wallet to vote for the kinds of products you want to see out there. This is the time to forge ahead and embrace the benefits of modernisation, technology and design because this means the future will be full of better experiences and better products that play a part in a closed loop life-cycle where manufacturers assume responsibility for what they produce.
The way forward isn’t simply responsible consumerism – that’s only a part of how we live. Whether you’re a musician, accountant, teacher or mechanic, don’t be afraid to bring environmental issues into your career. As a designer, I leverage my skills and experience to pursue what I believe in. And, as Robert DeNiro once said: “You’re either part of the problem, part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape”. What will you be?
Leon Fitzpatrick, 28, is a Product Designer and all-round cultural creative. Australian born with a global upbringing and U.S. based education and professional experience, his primary focus is eco-design research and development.
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