Defining Ecodesign Through Awards

Defining Ecodesign Through Awards

Two years ago the International Design Excellence Awards added an ecodesign category, giving special recognition to designs with a greener approach to materials and energy.

Jane Savage, one of the award judges, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about the most important aspects of greening product designs, highlights from the awards and the challenges of determining just what an ecodesign is.

Savage works for Nike with the company's Considered team, integrating the concepts of environmentally preferred materials and waste reduction into products like the Air Jordan XX3.

Jonathan Bardelline: What makes a design an ecodesign winner? What are the qualities that really make something earn this award?

Jane Savage: There are a lot of components to our judging criteria over all the products, but in particular with ecodesign, and at least from my perspective, it definitely has a lot to do with understanding your material science and also taking a systems-thinking approach to design in terms of thinking about the entire lifecycle and even supply chain involved with the design and - you know, and how the problem is approached and solved.

I would say materials and kind of systems-thinking lifecycle approach is definitely two important pieces to ecodesign in terms of the criteria.

JB: And are those aspects weighed evenly or are some aspects sometimes weighed more heavily if certain materials are used or does purpose of the product come into play?

JS: Well, let me back up a second here 'cause I'm thinking about all the designs that I had the opportunity to judge and I have to say that overall in the category, I was disappointed with most of the entries that were in there.

And mainly I think it's because there just isn't a good framework or a good criteria out there, maybe a common platform that people are using by which to create ecodesign.

So in some cases when I say that it's important to really understand your materials science, there's some misperceptions around, for example, PVC, you know, one entry had what they called biodegradable PVC, and from my understanding there's no such thing.

And there is still the notion of, you know, at the end of life of a product, you can throw it away because it can biodegrade in a landfill, when that's not necessarily the case in a lot of what was come up with. Or in some cases just because something had a rechargeable battery in it or it was a hand-cranked kind of notion. That was an entry that somebody served up as ecodesign, so I think the biggest opportunity for me that I saw was just creating a common platform or a set of criteria by which you can judge ecodesigns and I felt that it was pretty open-ended.

JB: And do you think awards like this are helping to narrow that down to give some sort of definition of what is a true ecodesign by awarding ones that really stand out to help create this definition?

Because we've run into that in a lot of areas where there's no certain definition, that there's a lot of ways to interpret things like ecodesign, sustainability. Do awards like this help to say these are the kind of things we should be making?

JS: I think if anything an award like this helps to get the conversation started around it and to begin a discussion and build consensus because for now it's still a new category within IDEA, and it just tells me that there's a lot of opportunity to take a leadership position, you know, whether it's the IDEA awards itself creating that criteria or the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America).

I think it's mainly around right now a conversation that probably hasn't been started yet or in a more robust manner. I mean there are groups out there who are getting after and are more focused upon it, but my sense coming from the IDEA awards and, especially with the ecodesign category, that it's still in its nascent stages.

JB: What are some areas where there's a lot being done in terms of good ecodesign and are there areas you're seeing where there's just a lack of anything happening, where the actual real opportunity is?

JS: At least looking at all the entries, the majority of what I thought was really strong was more in the zone of alternative lighting sources.

So instead of using even an incandescent bulb or even instead of the alternative, the kind of popular alternative now is around compact fluorescents, but starting with the use of LEDs, LEDs having a longer lifespan, of course, as well as, in terms of end of life, having to deal with the mercury issues of disposing of the compact fluorescent bulb.

So there were a lot of good, strong entries in that area and then there was a lot of good concept work around the use of solar panels, capitalizing on solar energy for solar panels and how to - there's some really strong concepts in there around solar paneled roof tiles. So that's not just a kind of ad hoc attachment to your roof, but it's integrated with the design of your roof, so those are some really strong concepts. They're from more of a consumer product perspective. I felt that, you know, there's still a huge opportunity to think through what that space would look like in the future.

JB: Where are most of these ecodesigns coming from? They're coming from design firms, obviously, but who's driving some of these creations? Is it the firms themselves doing this on their own? Are their clients asking for things, like you said, integrating LEDs into products?

JS: A few of what we had looked at were concepts, so the concept may have come from an ID firm or they may have come from students, but I didn't get a sense that clients are necessarily asking for this.

So I would also challenge the designers out there who are working with their clients to steer them toward looking at lower environmental impact solutions, so that was the sense that I got.

It was mainly a push from the design if there was an opportunity for the designers or for the clients, if they were receptive to it, but otherwise, they were just concepts.

JB: In terms of actually making these products and services available to people, how does marketability come into play in this?

JS: I think in some cases some of these concepts are marketable if it means not compromising on the expectation of what a similar product that may be made in a conventional manner will deliver.

So, for example, my favorite of the eco category was that LED light bulb that I cited earlier, and I think it even was probably in the cover story of the article.

And to me, still using it in the form of an incandescent light bulb is so iconic and understandable, and you can just tell right away that it has the same features, benefits as let's say a conventional light bulb, but you know that something like this would last for 25 years and have a very long life versus, you know, a conventional light bulb obviously you have to change out whenever the filament kinda breaks on you.

So as long as the consumer isn't feeling like they're going to compromise, I think that's where you'll find ecodesign be successful because right now it's still a matter of is it convenient for me to use? Is it still going to work the way I would expect such a thing to work, etc.?

So you definitely have to put yourself in the frame of mind of the consumer in use. Anything that is inconvenient for them to use, I think, will just make it harder for them to adopt an idea.

JB: To go back to what you were saying about the conversation is just beginning on some of these things and how you were disappointed in some of the products, what are some things or some pieces of advice you would give to design firms or companies looking to look for design firms to green up their products?

JS: The first thing to do is definitely know your materials. Do your research and invest in materials science or connect with experts in the industry in terms of understanding materials. Because the biggest piece when you're designing anything, of course, is when you're looking at a bill of materials for a particular product design at the end of life.

When your product - when the consumer's done with your product, what happens to that product? Does it go to landfill? Can it be designed for disassembly so that you can then, you know, recycle it? Does it go to thrift?

So having a really good understanding of even the lifecycle of the product 'cause then that would inform your materials choices, and and don't just go by what you think is more - you know, “bamboo is more sustainable than this material or that material.”

Really understand that there's a hierarchy among different material types, so doing your research in that area and not make any assumptions because it's very easy to just default and say, “Well, I understand that bamboo, for example, is a renewable resource because it grows like a weed so it's gotta be a good option for something.”

But A, you may not know how that material or that fiber or that grass was grown. You don't know what the supply chain looked like behind that, so really developing a curiosity and understanding of even the supply chain involved with getting that material to its end state, usable state that you're using for your design.

Starting to then turn to the systems around which the product is living and not making any assumptions that just because something is also biodegradable or compostable that it is actually gonna break down when someone throws it away.

Because in most cases compostable means that it has to go into an industrial composter, which is recreating the system conditions for heat, pressure, time that's in landfill but in a way that it accelerates it, so really understanding your materials science in a system and the supply chain around the product.

Because oftentimes, you know, there's an analogy talking about, treating a patient, you know, with a chronic illness, for example. A patient with a chronic illness may go to a specialist and the specialist may only know about, let's say, neurology or may only know about pharmacy or may only know about surgery, for example, when really it's a team of specialists that take a holistic approach to how to solve the issues around the person's illness and create a systems or a holistic approach around their treatment.

So it's a combination of a bunch of those things and oftentimes when a designer is working on trying to come up with a solution for something, they're only inserting themselves into a very narrow window of their process maybe from concepts, ideation on paper, through a sampling stage, but they're not necessarily thinking through, “What does this look like?”

I would hope that they're thinking through the manufacturing piece and the commercialization of something, but then beyond that, what happens when you're done with it?

But there's a piece, you know, on the extreme end, what happens at the end of life with the product and even what happens at the beginning stages of the product when you're having to harvest, where you're having to create the materials that go into your design. It's really about broadening your scope.

JB: Just like you said, there's a lot more conversation that needs to be made over these issues.

JS: Yes and that's one thing that's amazing about working on sustainable design is that it's so complex. It's very complicated and then the other advice I would have is just don't get overwhelmed by it and don't be discouraged thinking, “Well, I don't have control over all of this.”

But you can at least - the more informed you are, the better decisions you will make and that may actually dictate a new place for you to take a design if you have a greater awareness of the entire kind of supply chain and lifecycle of it.