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Whole Systems & Life-Cycle Thinking Vs ‘Greenwash’

Posted in Movements, Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on September 16th, 2010

Source: Core 77

The Keep Cup – LCA Case Study by RMIT Centre for Design

From “The Design Response to a Wash of Green: Whole Systems and Life Cycle Thinking” by Simon Lockrey:

What a great idea: a ‘green’ product to make a difference, make one happy, and assist in performing the menial tasks that litter an otherwise hectic day. Or is it? Consumer decision-making is beginning to follow a distinctly ‘green’ trend, which is fantastic in principle but often contrived in reality. What does this mean for the designer who imagines, designs and creates these goods that cater for growing consumer demand in ‘sustainability?’

There lies the contradiction between designing for the consumption obsessed market and designing to the core principles of sustainability, where environmental, economic and social aspects are somewhat detached from a consumer driven market.

According to Ezio Manzini, design theorist from the famed Politecnico di Milano, we have a crisis of the commons (common areas, goods, etc), a lack of contemplative time (a time poor existence, longer hours at work, etc), and most relevant to designers, a proliferation of remedial goods (Manzini 2003). The latter sees products solving every perceived problem imaginable. Whether it is a toothbrush that oscillates the plaque off in half the time, or a breakfast bar filling the five-minute bus ride, we have become increasingly, unconsciously used to products feeding our increasing wants, without a thought as to how that consumption impacts the environment. Last century, the raw materials consumed by one person in the US increased five fold (Matos and Wagner 1998). This looks more ominous when combined with the fact that only around 15-20 % of the world is highly developed to a US or western style of consumption (UN, 2009). One approach is for design to lower the user’s consumption, without degrading the consumer’s experience. The question is whether the new breed of ‘eco’ products adds to the crisis, or makes a real difference.

They may be adding to the crisis if the design method follows the ‘rules of thumb’ for that infiltrated the design community in last two decades. The reality is that these techniques do have potential to make a difference, but are often ineffective. Take design for disassembly. A designer in an appliance company designs a product for disassembly although there is no effective product stewardship scheme to collect the parts from reclaimed models. The design driven benefit is not delivered, rendering the methodology a waste of time. It is also well and good to reduce the weight of components and thus the embodied energy of the same appliance, however if the bulk of the impacts are generated during use from electricity (like an electric kettle), then the strategy most likely has negligible benefit in reducing environmental load. Likewise by making parts from commonised, recyclable materials, the likelihood is that there is no post consumer recycling stream or infrastructure in place to handle the majority of parts and materials, due to the commercial reality of recycling. This design for environment mentality has long been detached from the benefit it has aimed to deliver upon.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel. There are ways to make a difference, and there is evidence these methods are filtering through the design world. Life cycle thinking or applying a ‘whole systems’ approach can make ‘paradigm shifts’ in the reduction of environmental impacts of a product or service, without reducing perceived quality, or increasing cost.  As these ideas infiltrate design methodology, certain products shine as considered, sustainable shifts in the current ‘wash of green’.

Read the rest of this article (including the Keep Cup Case Study) by Simon Lockrey on Core 77

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