Is green design really over?

Are we in love with robots?/Screen capture

Four years ago, Marcus Fairs of Dezeen wrote a book on Green design in which he started with a very good definition:

Green design can loosely be defined in terms of a set of objectives: to reduce the use of nonrenewable resources, both in the manufacturing process and in the finished object or building itself; to enhance the lives not just of users but also of everyone in the supply chain; and to minimize the environmental impact of the product or building during and after its useful life.

That was fairly straightforward and neutral and still holds up. But it's not good enough for Marcus anymore. It's not shiny. So Marcus has given up on green, and suggests that designers and users have as well. He writes in Sorry, green design, it's over:

But sustainability turned out to be unsustainable. We just didn't have the time; we couldn't afford to be green. We thought the products looked ugly. We didn't enjoy the preachiness or the guilt.

But most of all we got seduced by tech. iPads! Plasma TVs! Replicator 2s! Drones! Anything, as long as we can plug it in or put batteries in it. Anything, as long as it has a touchscreen or makes a reassuring beeping sound.

Even green design blogs such as Inhabitat and Treehugger have experienced technophiliac mission creep and now cover smartphone-powered satellites and 3D-printing on the moon as well as passive ventilation…..

It's harsh to break the news on Valentine's Day but here it is: sorry green design, it's over. It wasn't really going anywhere. And we've fallen in love with a robot.

He makes a couple of good points, but there are good reasons why we have experienced technophiliac mission creep. For one thing, technology is one of the keys to using less energy, from LEDs to Nest thermostats. The smartphone is changing the way we connect and getting people out of cars. 3D printing may herald an age when things are made to order when they are needed, instead of mass producing and shipping and storing huge quantities of everything. Technology is not inherently un-green, nor is the green movement anti-tech.

Fairs goes on about the green movement, with a very different definition than he used four years ago:

Green design felt right at the start of the economic crisis: it sought to replace over-indulgence with frugality, served with a side order of punishment for our wickedness. Penal minimalism was all the rage: spartan furniture made of ethically sourced timber that was so good for you, it hurt….

It was a romantic vision, but a pessimistic one. It demanded we atone for resource scarcity by making do with less. It suggested we undo the damage caused by rampant consumerism by engaging in a paradoxical and ill-defined un-consumption. We would buy our products only once, and they would last us forever, whether we liked it or not.

Or, one might point out that it can be a profoundly optimistic vision, of taking control of our lives, of getting off the consumption bandwagon. The voluntary simplicity trend, slow living, the "enougher" movement, as Rob Dietz calls it in his new book, are all gaining traction.

There is no question that the green movement has changed. It grew up. Five years ago, every second post on green sites was about bamboo clothing and handmade furniture; now it's about building community, reducing consumption, about living in smaller spaces and sharing. It's about bikes, not bamboo.

People are better now at knowing whether green design is baked in or painted on. Green living is no longer about buying the right products, but is a way of thinking, a way of life. It may not be shiny enough for Dezeen anymore but it is optimistic, technophilic, robotic, positive and it's not over, it's just getting started.

Tags: Designers | Greenwashing