Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr/Creative Commons
In their book Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart famously declared that 80 percent of a product's lifecycle impact is determined during its design. Yet, for many of us, "design" is a concept that's just sort of out there in the ether; every man-made object we touch every day has been designed, but most of that process is behind the scenes, so we don't always think about it. Yet, that process, more than anything else -- how it's transported to us, how we use it, etc. -- ultimately determines how "green" (or not) any given product will be. So how can design help shrink the life cycle impacts of the stuff we all use?
Photo credit: anikki* via Flickr/Creative Commons
First, let's consider a few of the inputs and outcomes involved in the design process. While a product is being designed, a bunch of questions get answered: How much energy will this use? What materials should it be made from? How long will it work before breaking down? How easy will it be to repair? Where will it go when the user is done with it? Get green answers to those questions, and the impact goes down.
It sounds easy enough, but there are a lot of moving parts to synchronize in the process, and so it's often much more easily said than done. Still, the results are impressive when thoughtfully accomplished; to see how it really works -- from cradle to cradle or grave, wherever it ends up -- let's look at a few specific examples.
Photo credit: p.Gordeon via Flickr/Creative Commons
The light bulb
One of the most recognizable designs in the green world -- the compact fluorescent light bulb or CFL -- is also a great example of how a simple design decision can have a huge green impact. The design decision to switch from creating light by incandescence -- passing electrical current through a filament, creating heat and light as a byproduct (a terribly inefficient method) -- to creating light by fluorescence -- passing current through a gas-filled tube -- cuts the energy used by 70 percent or more.
The two function almost identically, and we use them in the same way -- either way, we flip the switch and the bulb comes on -- and, yet, CFLs use way less electricity. We don't have to think about changing our behavior (though, in this example, it isn't good to, say, leave a bunch of lights on in a room you aren't using), but, by using one design over the other, the impact is less and we're greener. Done and done.
Photo credit: knoend
Packaging is garnering an increasing amount of attention for it's impact, and for good reason. We all have horror stories about individually-wrapped prunes and huge boxes for tiny thumb drives and the sort, and the numbers bear it out: Americans generated 60 billion pounds of plastic waste in 2006, and recycled just 7 percent of it.
So, how can design help solve this? There are few better examples than when the packaging is designed into the product itself, as with knoend's lite2go (pictured above). The plastic package it arrives in folds out to become the lamp's shade, and voila -- no waste, less impact.
Photo credit: frenchfinds.co.uk via Flickr/Creative Commons
So, smart packaging design can help reduce a product's impact, but what about the product itself? When stuff is designed to last for a long time -- when life cycles can be defined in generations instead of years -- then the relative impact shrinks with each passing year (and generation). Furniture, housing, even cast iron cookware -- we are surrounded by possibilities for heirloom design, if they're designed with longevity in mind.
Here's a good way to think about it: An object that costs $1,000 and lasts 20 years is still twice as cheap as something that costs $100 but only lasts one year. And that gets at a handful of important themes in TreeHugger's design philosophy -- memes like "The greenest widget is the one you already have," and "The key to sustainability is living with less." It's something TreeHugger Lloyd will be looking for at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair this weekend, and it's something that will continue appearing on these pages, for as long as any of it is around. Design is all around us, but that doesn't mean we should go out and buy it all right away.