‘Lead in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people’
The launch of ‘green’ grenades that emit less smoke suggests business needs to inject the design into ‘sustainable design’
“Enlightened self-interest will,” says Design Council chief executive David Kester, “push sustainability from the margins to the commercial mainstream.” Yet in some industries – and for some companies – the commitment to the cause can seem only sticker deep.
Anecdotal evidence suggests part of the problem is that too many firms ‘design’ sustainable solutions without consulting a designer. The design industry could do more. No company has yet done for sustainability what IDEO did for innovation: made design’s contribution to the issue so obvious that only the wilfully negligent could miss the point.
Instead of a systematic approach that considers the life cycle of a product and strives to deliver the best performance or result over the longest term, are there too many gestures and gimmicks, like Ford boasting about the green roof on one of its factories or British Aerospace launching bullets with less lead in and grenades that don’t pollute the air as much?
There is something inherently satirical about the idea of environmentally friendly weapons – they are the only ‘green’ products designed to actually kill people – yet British Aerospace argues that if bullets are fired, the planet is slightly better off if there’s less lead in them, and that rockets would be ‘greener’ with less toxins in them. Such initiatives may reduce the environmental impact of arms manufacture but does it justify the ‘environmentally friendly’ tag?
The Ministry of Defence accounts for 66% of carbon dioxide emissions on government land. In the last two years it has bought 7% of its energy from sustainable sources, changed its timber- buying policies and reduced waste by 1% a year. The environmental group Enviros, which audited the MoD’s sustainability drive, told it, in school-report parlance: “Shows promise. Must try harder. C+.”
The US Army has its own website devoted to sustainability, but its vision is long on rhetoric and short on detailed targets it can be measured against.
Internet-based virtual worlds such as Second Life have come under fire with the allegation that an avatar – a virtual character – uses almost as much electricity (around 1,800 kilowatts an hour) as the average Brazilian. The intricate debate about this charge matters less than the light it shines on our home computer usage.
A PC running a flight simulator game may take 76% more power from the grid than a washing machine. There is no energy rating scheme for PCs that buyers can trust. Via, the Taiwanese firm famed for its power-efficient computers, has launched a Carbon Free Computing initative that uses carbon offsetting, alternative energy sources and energy conservation. It’s a start. But as soon as you contemplate how many PCs, servers and power stations it takes to maintain cyberspace, you realise how far there is to go.
Can bling be green? Treehugger.com carries a small advert offering “ethical diamond jewellery” from Brilliant Earth. Beth Gerstein founded the company after realising, when she got engaged, how hard it was to be sure her ring incorporated diamonds that had been ethically mined.
Demand for ethical jewellery has persuaded 19 retailers (including QVC and Wal-Mart) to pledge to buy gold only from firms that meet a strict set of criteria covering human rights and the environment. Tiffany & Co has even signed up to support the No Dirty Gold campaign. Brilliant Earth gives 5% of profits to an African community fund. But scepticism about how definitively a company can ensure its jewels are not, as the recent movie put it, ‘blood diamonds’ has led some to buy recycled jewellery from companies like Green Karat.
Fewer towels, fairtrade coffee, lights that go off when the room’s vacant… this seems to be as eco-savvy as the hotel industry gets. But this August, hotelier Dennis Quaintance launches the sustainable Proximity Hotel in North Carolina, which will use 100 rooftop solar panels to heat water, has a lift that generates electricity as it descends and uses 40% less energy and 30% less water than comparable hotels.
Competitive pressure for change has been mounting since 2005, when Hilton opened its first hotel to be endorsed by America’s Green Building Council. The hotel in Vancouver has economised energy use, recycled 75% of the materials used to build it and allows guests to open windows to let in fresh air and reduce indoor pollutants. Oddly, Hilton’s website ignores these eco-credentials in its profile of the hotel.
In the 1970s, the only green cosmetic was a shade of eye shadow. Today, with Stella McCartney following pioneers like Aveda, the industry is finally taking sustainability seriously. Using the right materials in make-up was a start. McCartney’s Care line uses no endangered plants, genetically modified ingredients, petrochemicals, paraben preservatives (which have been found in breast tumours) or synthetic fragrances.
But there’s more to the industry makeover than organic make-up. The use of sustainable material in packaging, various carbon offset schemes by some of the top brands and a shift to alternative energy (Lancôme will open a 50% solar- powered plant this year) have helped green up the industry’s act. The big task now is to find a way of making perfume bottles that doesn’t involve massive emissions of toxic air.
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 2, Summer 2007