Apocalypse tomorrow: sustainability and industrial design?

Industrial design faces a knotty problem: how do you design cool products that sell and use the Earth’s resources sustainably? Lyn Garrett examines the trade-offs.


Lyn Garrett has a particular expertise in
product design, ergonomics, technology and
furniture design. He is currently the
undergraduate co-ordinator for the Industrial
Design major within the Bachelor of Design.

You may remember that science fiction movies from the 1960s reflected emerging concerns about the impact of the human race on the planet. Many themes within what we now refer to as sustainability were explored in movies like Soylent Green, Silent Running, The Omega Man, and Mad Max. These dystopian visions were generally condensed enough for the story to be wrapped up in 120 minutes, and were resolved by Charlton Heston chewing the scenery or Mel Gibson’s heroics and a shotgun.

The real world is somewhat more complex, and barring a currently invisible technological advance or cultural change that renders the whole thing obsolete, sustainability as an issue will be with us for the foreseeable future and beyond. It’s an example of a ‘wicked problem’1 (a term coined in 1973 by Rittel and Weber): a Godzilla of a problem, a multi-dimensional, many-layered problem that will not succumb to simple analysis or be resolved by simple measures. It’s such a huge issue that despite being bombarded with examples of how it’s affecting us, we’re little wiser about what can be done.

There is an obvious tension between production and manufacturing and sustainability. However, from an industrial design perspective, resource use and energy production / consumption are two aspects of sustainability that we might be able to tackle.

Design and sustainability have a chequered history. As a profession industrial design developed alongside manufacturing, and originally ‘good’ design was understood as a product that met the needs of the user, the manufacturer and the designer. It is only recently that our understanding of design has deepened to the point where we clearly understand the roles and responsibilities of the profession and its relationship with culture and society. From this more critical and objective standpoint, what industrial design has achieved – both for good and for ill – is easily visible.

Design as a whole has a problem. All facets of design have been part of the production / consumption cycle. This is not about blame or about pointing fingers – the relationship was a natural outcome of how design as a profession came into being. But industrial design has a particular problem because the products that we design have potentially much longer lifecycles than websites or garments, and many products take a direct line from manufacture to use to landfill. They absorb a lot of energy and can have relatively short lifespans.
Industrial designers find themselves torn between quite different directions: to design cool products and to be part of a sustainable solution rather than be part of the problem. In order to explore both problem and solution, the phrase ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is a useful jump-off point. What does the phrase mean to design and designers?

Reduce:  Reduce is at once the most promising and the most problematic aspect of design and sustainability: at its core, ‘reduce’ goes against the very fabric of the production / consumption model.
Reduce has three design-related facets – use less, get more value from what you do use, and don’t use some things at all.

‘Use less’ needs no elaboration. ‘Getting more value’ suggests that a product needs to perform as required, be treasured, do the job well and have an appropriate lifespan. In terms of design, this could mean that products are designed to be economical to upgrade or repair rather than replace. This approach is likely to raise retail prices in the marketplace, and possibly reduce sales volume: a risky decision with potentially serious financial consequences.

Apple Computers is an example of a company whose products retail at a premium compared to its competitors. Apple is indelibly linked to ‘good design’ through its iMac and iPod products. It creates value for the user across its packaging, hardware and software in a way that distinguishes it in the marketplace. Sustainability is an increasingly visible aspect of Apple’s marketing, although at this stage it is focusing on material use rather than the whole product lifecycle. There is still some way to go before the lifecycle of a product becomes a major marketing priority for mainstream companies. Regular releases of new products also encourage the premature replacement of existing products. This is not a sustainable approach in the long term.

‘Don’t use some things at all’ refers to the manufacturing processes and materials that use excessive energy or have other environmental impacts. Chrome plating, for example, is a horrendous process as far as the environment is concerned. However, in the marketplace chrome is connected with quality, longevity and hygiene, so manufacturers of bathroom tapware, for example, either have to develop new processes that meet purchasers’ expectations or change those expectations. Both approaches are financially risky and require manufacturers to take the long view.

Reuse: ‘Reuse’ has two areas that are of interest to designers. There is a subset of design that investigates what end-of-life products can be turned into to stave off their final trip to the landfill. The challenge inherent in this approach – creating value from something valueless – is particularly popular among design students, but has broader applications in the marketplace.

Search the ‘net, and you will find small bookshelves made from used truck brake pads, CD racks made from bus shelter posters, and furniture made from car tyres. However, these products currently only appeal to niche markets and are far from the mainstream. A local example is the conversion of Smartdrive motors from Fisher and Paykel washing machines into the generators for small-scale commercial water turbines. Fisher and Paykel supports this end-of-life use, but the challenge for design and manufacturing is that this end-of-life value may need to be considered in the manufacturing of the original product: an investment that the original manufacturer may not benefit from.

Even then, reuse only defers the discarding or things – it doesn’t keep them out of the landfill forever. What it does do, though, is make the best use out of the material and energy resources encapsulated in the product – so second-life uses are a useful step towards sustainability.

Recycle: We all know about recycling. Many of us also know that recycling is not always a profitable activity. This is partly because recycling itself is labour intensive, and there are limited markets for recycled materials.
Design and designers can help by making products easier to disassemble and recycle – an approach, however, that is potentially of little direct benefit for the manufacturer. Germany has addressed this issue head-on by making German manufacturers responsible for their end-of-life products. German supermarkets are responsible for the packaging stripped off products purchased on their premises, which provides an incentive for the supermarket to pressure manufacturers to reduce their packaging. These are useful examples, but the problem with the word ‘recycling’ is it can be misleading.

While recycling as we know it today removes materials from the waste stream, Braungart and McDonough suggest in their influential book Cradle to Cradle2 that most of what we do is better termed ‘downcycling’, as the recycled material rarely has the physical properties of the virgin material and cannot be fed back into the manufacturing process at the same level of value. They further suggest that the ultimate goal for end-of-life products and materials should be ‘upcycling’: products designed to decompose so that they become actively beneficial ‘technical nutrients’ rather than merely reducing the waste stream. Obviously, this is some way into the future.

What else does the future hold? What are the solutions? As befits a wicked problem, there are many possible approaches and many benefits only exist as possibilities rather than realities.

Some trends are apparent already. Toyota’s Prius hybrid car is part of one trend – not just for its technology, but for what it has achieved in bringing alternative transport technologies squarely into the public consciousness. Sustainability is marketable and people are prepared to pay a premium for a product that delivers better value in the longer term. This is an important lesson for designers.

Another issue raised by the Prius is the argument around the energy that the vehicle consumes across its whole life, from manufacture to disposal. Whatever the merits of the vehicle itself, it demonstrates that vetting the sustainability credentials of a product is not straightforward either. There are many examples of products that claim to be sustainable in some way, but don’t respond to even a cursory investigation of their green credentials – a practice disparagingly referred to as ‘greenwash’.

In terms of material technology, bioplastics are a development that looks promising. Bioplastics are manufactured from organic material such as corn starch, which could reduce the amount of oil used in plastics manufacture. However, the situation parallels that with biofuel crops, which are more profitable to grow than food crops and compete for the same arable land resources. This is another example of the need to understand the wider implications of our decisions.

In the same way that micro-generation (generation at point of use, such as domestic solar water heating) is a promising approach to energy production, micro-manufacturing might be a promising approach to reducing carbon emissions. Three-dimensional printing technologies are advancing at a similar pace to computer power and the quality of the parts produced through these processes continues to improve as the buy-in price continues to drop. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that in-home manufacturing could substantially reduce the amount of fuel expended in shipping products from one country to another.

The basis of this approach is already here. Traditional manufacturing is based on the benefits of mass-production, but many of the digitally-managed manufacturing processes are capable of economically producing one-off products. There is an emerging trend whereby products are sold as digital files rather than physical products: the files are sold through the ‘net (see www.ponoko.com for example) and the purchaser sends the file to a local manufacturer to have the item produced. While currently this only works for a limited range of technologies and materials, there is a lot of potential to expand this approach – which has the added benefit of reducing the need for packaging.

However, one potential fish-hook in this approach is that micro-manufacturing might encourage more things to be produced as they’re so accessible. Another potential fish-hook is the impact on the labour market through a reduction in manufacturing capacity.

Bioplastics and micro-manufacturing highlight the nature of sustainability as a wicked problem: solutions are not simple and straightforward. Whatever the future is, we’ll head towards it a step at a time – some steps forward, some sideways, and the occasional one backwards.

Neither Charlton Heston nor Mel Gibson can save us from this one.

  1. Wikipedia. (Retrieved 10.3.09). Wicked Problems. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
  2. McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things. Portland: North Point Press.

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