The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products

Products are the source of all environmental problems. Major issues such as pollution, deforestation, species loss, and global warming are all side-effects of the activities that provide consumers with food, transport, shelter, clothing and the endless array of consumer goods on the market today. Ecological and social issues are becoming more important than ever before, and a vital new role is opening up for design. Many beautiful-looking products have an underlying ugliness that is hidden to the consumer and is often invisible to the designer as well. This site reveals these environmental and social impacts and shows how can they be designed out to create products that have a "total beauty". Sustainable products are those that are the best for people, profits and the planet.

One issue is that most designers focus on improving form and function but they pay less attention to fabrication -- how products are made. Fabrication is where many of the environmental and social impacts lie, with damage being caused by the extraction of raw materials and by pollution rising from manufacturing processes. Then there is the notion of producer responsibility. Products don't disappear after being sold.  All products die eventually when they come to the end of their useful life. Where do they go to then?

Designers and discerning consumers are starting to look beyond pure surface, recognising that while a chair for example may look beautiful, can a product really represent the pinnacle of mankind's genius if it is made using polluting methods or by exploiting workers? The "total beauty" of solutions presented on this site extends to elegant recycling processes, beautifully-crafted energy flows, and materials that are so safe they could be eaten la carte.

This site presents a radical but simple framework for sustainability. cyclic|solar|safe is an easy to understand protocol for understanding products and how they can become more sustainable. It is fast and easy to use, whether you are designing a product or considering buying it.

Environmental issues are complex and can seem hard to get to grips with. The approaches in this book build on the lessons learnt through many years' experience and hundreds of product innovations, and the book has been designed tomake the challenge of sustainable design more approachable.

While some firms choose to undertake expensive and lengthy "life cycle assessment" studies, our studies of what companies actually do is very revealing. Out of 500 products examined, over 99% used just 11 basic innovative principles. So despite the complexity involved in understanding the environmental impacts of a product, there are relatively few routes for innovation, and most of them guarantee and improvement in environmental performance most of the time.

Innocent-looking products threaten the environment

It may seem surprising, but most environmental problems are caused by unintentional side-effects of the manufacture, use and disposal of products. Looking at products closely highlights the environmental problems they cause. Over 30 tonnes of waste are produced for every one tonne of product that reaches the consumer. And then 98% of those products that do reach the end consumer are thrown away within 6 months. This whole process is about 2% efficient in terms of energy.

There has been a lot of improvement already. Billions of pounds are being spent on cleaning up industry and environmental laws are getting stricter every day. But are these measures enough? The answer is clearly no, as the environment is still in a mess. "Legalised pollution" is the problem -- firms are allowed to put smoke into the air and poisons into the water, as long as they do not breach a certain level. You are legally allowed to put pollutants into the air when you drive your car. But just because these things are legal does not mean that they are right.

Many pollution problems caused in the manufacturing of raw materials and products are tackled at the "end of the pipe", by fitting on expensive clean-up equipment. The far more elegant and effective route is to design the process right in the first place. As green architect Bill McDonough says, "regulation is a sign of design failure."

So while there have been some considerable improvements in the environmental performance of the "usual suspects" like recycled paper and concentrated soap powder, we must expand our horizons radically and start to look at everything, from hi-fis and golfclubs to doorhandles and lipstick.

Design is the key

Consciously or not, the design of products and processes is the main determinant of environmental impact. The engineers and environmental managers at a factory can reduce an emission here or make less waste there, but there are limits to how much improvement can be made in those ways. Design is the key intervention point for making radical improvements in the environmental performance of products -- and all their by-products as well! A 1999 survey by Arthur D Little revealed that 55% of senior executives in industry singled out design as the single most important mechanism for their companies to tackle sustainability.

Sustainable products are products which are fully compatible with nature throughout their entire lifecycle.

For example, the materials they are made from form part of a continuous cycle, and the energy used to make them does not release persistent poisons into the air or water. Some sustainable products become part of the living ecosystem, such as plant fibres which are grown and then turned into board for packaging. At the end of the package's life, the material is composted and returned to the soil once again. Another example would be aluminium sourced from recycling collection, now known as "urban mines" or "above-ground mines", makes an excellent lightweight car body. The aluminium is melted down using energy from biomass or small scale hydroelectricity, and is collected and re-used at the end of the car's life.

Some designs don't make much of a difference to the environment. For example, the Starck toothbrush has an attractive shape, but it is made in the same way as normal brushes and is neither better nor worse environmentally. However, if the designer had chosen to chrome-plate the handle, then the toothbrush would have been made worse environmentally -- much worse, as chrome plating is notoriously polluting. The sustainable designer would have looked at how to make an attractive and exciting brush just as Philippe Starck did, but would also have looked at the environmental and social issues as well. This could mean making the brush recyclable, or perhaps using much longer-lasting natural rubber bristles instead of nylon ones. This particular example is examined in more detail later in the book.  

All new products need to be designed in a sustainable way, but existing designs also need to be revised. Diego Masera is a designer who developed a new chair for manufacture by small rural workshops in Mexico. It used a quarter of the amount of wood and yet because of its stylish appearance it sold for twice as much as traditional designs. This means that there is now much less pressure on the local forests, which were becoming badly depleted.

There is a long way to go. Only about 0.001% of industrial products and services on the market today could be described as having good environmental performance. A relative handful of firms have already come up with product innovations  there are maybe 1000 potentially sustainable products on the market  out of an estimated 100 million products on sale worldwide. Yet sustainability is inevitable  it's just about who will be first to gain a beachhead. Already firms are making major strategic stakes in what will be a trillion dollar business in the next five years.

Simple lessons from nature show the way

Many environmental improvements arise from an improvement in efficiency -- if you have a washing machine that uses less electricity, then there will be less fuel burnt at the power station and so less emissions and pollution. The same idea holds for materials use -- less metal means less mining, and so on. This concept, known as "eco-efficiency", is very popular, perhaps because getting a job done using less energy or materials means there is often a cost saving as well as an environmental benefit.

However, there are technological and thermodynamic limits to how much savings can be achieved. Some firms are managing annual improvements of about 2%, and so use for example 98 units of energy to get a job done when they were using 100 units before. In an increasingly crowded world, this is not really a fast enough improvement, and does not offer a significant competitive advantage -- the general view is that we need to reduce energy and materials usage by 90%, or by a factor of ten. This "Factor Ten" approach is important and a huge challenge, but is not enough by itself.

It's not sufficient to be eco-efficient. By adopting only an efficiency route, we are like the Titanic with fuel-efficient engines -- yes, there is less smoke being emitted from the funnels, but we're still heading for the iceberg ...

Life on earth has been around for billions of years (3.85 billion, to be exact), and it has a few tricks to offer us. If we learn from nature and change the quality of the energy and materials we use, then we can advance closer to being fully sustainable. For example, if we use solar energy, there can be no environmental impact at all, so we can use as much as we like or can afford. Another important idea is that the flows of materials in nature tend to be cyclic, so you can never run out of resources. By recycling more minerals we can mimick nature. And obviously, using materials that have been grown is also a good thing -- and there are now some very high-tech and high performance plastics made from corn as well as wood and soya biocomposites to choose from.  

It is very achievable to undertake mass production using the basic protocols followed by natural systems. There are five design requirements for sustainable products. The first three mimick the protocols used by plant and animal ecosystems:

Cyclic: The product is made from organic materials, and is recyclable or compostable, or is made from minerals that are continuously cycled in a closed loop.

Solar: The product uses solar energy or other forms of renewable energy that are cyclic and safe, both during use and manufacture.

Safe: The product is non-toxic in use and disposal, and its manufacture does not involve toxic releases or the disruption of ecosystems.

The fourth requirement is based on the need to maximise the utility of resources in a finite world:

Efficient: The product's efficiency in manufacture and use is improved by a factor of ten, requiring 90% less materials, energy and water than products providing equivalent utility did in 1990.

And the fifth recognises that all companies have an impact on the people who work for them and the communities within which they operate:

Social: The product and its components and raw materials are manufactured under fair and just operating conditions for the workers involved and the local communities.

For a given product, it is possible to score each of these requirements out of 100, and this information can be expressed in a simple logo, or it can be presented in text as a vital statistics-style index: 50|30|90|40|10.

We have the technical building blocks for a 100% sustainable industrial system in all but a few key areas most of the staple technologies of the sustainable future already exist, and only a few will require major new innovation, specifically electronics and microchip manufacture.

The goal of sustainable design is to make all products 100% cyclic, solar and safe.

The design of sustainable products is not conceptually difficult. Having analysed over 500 products, we found that 99% of all environmental innovations use one of more of these eleven principles:

1. Cyclic Mined. The product becomes more cyclic by making use of recycled metal, glass or plastic, by becoming more recyclable, or both. Example: Patagonia Synchilla Fleece Jacket from recycled polyester

2. Cyclic Grown. The product becomes more cyclic by making use of grown materials such as wood, leather and wool, by becoming more compostable, or both. Example: Bamboo Bike

3. Alternative Energy in Use. The product becomes more solar by using a renewable energy in use, sometimes by using solar-generated electricity. Example: Clockwork Toothbrush

4. Alternative Energy in Manufacture. The product becomes more solar by using a renewable energy source for its manufacturing process. Example: Urtekram Shampoo made in wind-powered factory

5. Substitute Materials. The product becomes safer as a result of toxic materials or components being substituted for safer ones. Example: Tungsten bullets (lead-free)

6. Stewardship Sourcing. The product becomes safer in the habitat preservation sense, and also more social, by getting raw materials from fairly-traded sources or low impact sources such as FSC approved forests. Example: Dolphin and Albatross-friendly Tuna

 7. Utility. The product becomes more efficient by providing greater utility for the user, such as multifunction products or rented products. Example: Black and Decker Quattro Drill/Sander/Saw/Screwdriver

8. Durability. The product becomes more efficient in materials usage as it lasts longer. Example: Spacepen Millennium II contains a lifetime's worth of ink

9. Efficiency. The product becomes more efficient in its use of energy, water and materials, both in manufacture and use. Example: SoftAir Inflatable Chair

10.Bio-everything. The product becomes more cyclic, solar and safe as a result of using living organisms or biomimcry techniques. Example: Foxfibre naturally coloured cotton

11. Communication. The product communicates information that leads to a better environmental performance, usually by changing the behaviour of users. Example: Plastics labelling to aid recycling

So despite all the complex lifecycle analysis people do, there are relatively few options open to product developers. This also means that it is probably easier than people think to come up with environmental innovations.

What seems radical today will be mainstream tomorrow. Becoming 100% sustainable is not only possible, it can be achieved by the year 2100, and with the right belief we can give ourselves the capability of redesigning every product to be 100% cyclic, solar and safe.

The other benefit of the "11 steps" is that they can easily be learnt. By taking our online course you will be taking the first steps towards becoming an sustainability-literate designer.

Good luck!