Ten years ago, as the U.S. economy headed into the thick of global
competition, differentiation became the competitive watchword. I
warned then that "new and improved" wouldn't do. That's even truer
As I write, European and Japanese environmental policy initiatives
with names like WEEE, REACH and HARL are upping the competitive
ante. What may change the game even more is China positioning itself
to become a product-development powerhouse. Given the country's
newfound interest in developing sustainablythey literally
don't have a choicewe can expect China's product designs to
integrate ecological benefits before long.
From making stuff to designing services
It was nearly 20 years ago that we saw daily TV updates of overflowing
landfills and loaded trash barges roaming the Atlantic in search
of a home. The days are long past for debating the merits of plastic
versus paper, or boasting about the percent of recycled content
in products and packaging.
Design innovators have caught up with the notion of services as
"dematerialized products." The iPod, arguably the hottest product
on the market today, makes a poignant (if unintentional) ecologically
correct statement: Why struggle to light-weight a jewel box further
when an iPod can access and store 1,000 CDs worth of music with
no packaging-indeed, no CD at all?
From changing products to changing behavior
Thanks to Energy Star, computers, fax machines and photocopiers
now sleep when they are not in use, and most conference rooms have
motion detectors that turn lights off automatically when people
leave the room. Not every product can be designed to offer such
carefree efficiency, but we can start to make products that encourage
more sustainable behaviors by making them fun. The dashboard on
Toyota's hybrid Prius is a great start-providing game-like feedback
that helps drivers squeeze every possible mile from a tank of gas.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average
home pollutes the air with more greenhouse gases than the average
car. Over the next 10 years, I think we'll harness the power of
design innovation to make significant strides in reducing home energy
use-while making our homes safer and more comfortable. Let's start
with the meter. Today's electricity meters seem to be designed to
conceal information from those who actually use the juice. Researchers
are developing ways to turn our meters into home energy dashboards,
allowing us to spot power-hogging appliances or the lights your
teenage kids left on upstairs.
From save a watt to save a drop
Twenty years from now, two-thirds of the world's people will live
in a water-starved area. Beyond water purification and desalination
technologies, this looming crisis means there will soon be an acute
need for dishwashers, clothes washers and personal-hygiene products,
like shampoos and soaps, that conserve water.
Nanotech fibers represent the potential for as much in the apparel
industry, making self-cleaning fabrics possible. Such technologies
demonstrate the potential for holism in design, naturally conserving
precious resources while providing other consumer benefits as well.
What won't change
Regardless of the product or issue, consumers will always try
to make the most of their purchasing dollar. They will reach first
for those products that deliver superior primary benefits such as
performance, good taste, health or aesthetics over saving the earth
or even giving workers a fair shake.
Making things even more challenging, "green" products carry a
heavy burden of misperception. More than 40 percent of consumers
still equate environmentally responsible shopping with laundry detergents
that leave clothes dingy or fluorescent light bulbs that cast a
green hue. This is where designers come in.
What will change
Most product designers won't invent a new water- or energy-saving
technology, but they can design products with a lighter environmental
footprint that consumers want to use and be seen with-and for which
maybe even pay a premium. Doing so is good for business, can distinguish
one's career and can garner recognition within the design community.
Consider the IDEA-award-winning Prius and Whirlpool Duet washers,
The good news for the planet in 2005 is that many critical technologies
have already been developed. We already know how to save water and
energy, extend product life and manufacture products with low toxicity.
Successes like the iPod prove that lower-impact designs can even
revolutionize mature industries.
The better news for designers is that opportunities abound to
use their talents to make environmentally sound technologies appealing
and accessible to the mainstream, and give consumers the opportunity
to put their money where their heart is. Now that's a new and improved