The New Ecodesign: Sceptics Beware!

Whilst on a global scale Australia still dawdles on ecodesign, pockets of cutting-edge research and design are moving ahead with international recognition. Overview of events. In 1991 RMIT in Melbourne hosted the EcoDesign 1 Conference 1989-1992 Designers for the Planet, Perth WA Society for Responsible Design (1990 - ) NSW Re-Design Group Melbourne, Victoria (1991-93).

Global snapshot
More than ever before the act of producing and consuming objects is a process that entwines stakeholders beyond the maker and the consumer. (1) Designers, in their collaboration with industry are constantly dealing with change and new imperatives. The spectrum of forces acting on design and reshaping its outcomes is as varied as the products that emerge from the production line. In addition to simultaneously creating and responding to new social, cultural and economic trends, design is also coming under the more intense gaze of consumer groups, environment organisations and government regulators eager to see eco-efficient products that are safe, durable and desirable. At the same time a growing number of companies are looking to design as a means of becoming more competitive and ecologically sustainable over the longer term - two intimately related objectives.

For those who may still believe that environmentally responsible design or ecodesign is a fad or passing fashion, this piece will displease. Hopefully it will demonstrate otherwise, and in the process, inform. This is not to say that the development and adoption of ecodesign is trouble-free (it is not), but to reinforce that its essential objectives are being recognised as long term and desirable directions - for business and for conservation.

The trend internationally, and increasingly in Australia is that approaches such as ecodesign or design for environment, are here to stay.(2) They may not be progressing as fast as they are in Europe and North America, however ample evidence suggests that some key sectors of Australian industry, and influential segments of the design community are adopting ecodesign as a vital strategic tool. Regardless of the jargon and all its manifestations, the intent of ecodesign remains. Those who ignore the commercial, environmental and creative stimulus that ecodesign can offer, stand to become the dinosaurs of design as we move into the next millennium. This is not hyperbole, it is fact. Any half way thorough literature review of the scope and intensity of ecodesign, its clients, operatives and outcomes, will reveal its penetration into companies, governments, professional design associations and of course the environment movement.

The growing list of companies allocating substantial resources to ecodesign initiatives is not only testament to serious corporate environmental foresight, but also an acute reminder that the sceptics indifferent to ecodesign have got it wrong - very wrong! Regardless of the goods produced, environmentally driven product development is a key strategy motivating many of today's companies including: IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment Corporation, Sony, Siemens-Nixdorf, Bosch, Whirlpool, AEG, Miele, Wilkhahn, Philips Electronics, Loewe, Fuji-Xerox, AT&T, Electrolux, Steelcase, Knoll, Haworth, Herman Miller, Toshiba, Hitachi, BMW, Daimler-Benz, Renault, FIAT and Blackmores .

Governments and industry in the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia and North America, have invested, and are continuing to invest millions of dollars in the practice and policy of ecodesign. And for the sceptics, the outcomes aren't bland, low-tech products reminiscent of alternative life-style catalogues. Nor are they solely made from recycled materials resembling a mish mash of co-mingled waste fibres. They cover an extensive range of responses characterised by diversity; an amalgam of advanced technologies, smart materials, intelligent engineering, challenging aesthetics, optimal functionality and above all good design. The Dutch in particular have gone beyond the 'object' with a view to supporting ecodesign through government policy initiatives. Mindful of design's capacity to achieve a range of desirable outcomes across sectors, the Netherlands Government is implementing a comprehensive policy on 'Products and the Environment' which aims to integrate critical factors influencing the nature of production and consumption.(3)

Beyond the borders of individual countries, other organisations are also formalising the role and place of ecodesign. For example, the United Nations Environment Program is supporting an international Centre for Sustainable Product Development in Amsterdam, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is conducting a global research project on 'producer responsibility' and the extent to which manufacturers should be responsible for their products when discarded by consumers at end-of-life. These two initiatives alone, are clear signs of ecodesign's place on the international agenda.
Of course there are the conservative areas of design and industry that for various reasons adopt a fortress response to 'environment', however their long term commercial viability is at risk. The competition from product designers who value-add by blending 'environment' into their existing suite of tools, talents, strategies and business methods, will be too strong, too convincing and too desirable for clients to ignore. Over time greater environmental regulation and government policies will leave industry little choice but to see the sense of designing, producing and creating as though 'environment' matters.

Evolving Australian activity
Whilst on a global scale Australia still dawdles on ecodesign, pockets of cutting-edge research and design are moving ahead with international recognition. Ecodesign of the 90s however, is a very different proposition from environmentally responsible design of previous decades.
The early 90s represents a critical watershed in the ongoing development of ecodesign, and an important shift from previous perspectives dominated by low-tech solutions and the often unsophisticated approaches of the 60s and 70s, available chiefly to alternative life-stylers and hobby farmers. However well intentioned, their efforts have resulted in few demonstrable environmental benefits for the vast majority of urban dwellers. The early 90s witnessed an extremely significant deviation. No longer was the dominant ecodesign definition exemplified by adobe shelters, Yurt-like clones, permaculture and crusty recycled papers. A newer strand of ecodesign was more committed to innovative design solutions in response to serious environmental problems. It's ultimately about doing more with less.

The 1991 EcoDesign 1 Conference hosted by the National Centre for Design at RMIT in Melbourne was undoubtedly an important event in the ongoing formation of a culturally relevant, innovative and more environmentally robust approach to ecodesign. Described as 'agenda setting', the conference brimmed with rhetoric and platitudes. Even the guru of responsible design and author of the landmark text, Design for the Real World,(4) Victor Papanek was there to deliver the keynote address and emphasise the social value of ecodesign. Despite the rhetoric, the conference was a vital prerequisite in setting the foundations for real work ie. real green products created by practising designers for real consumers.

The new ecodesign became an approach concerned with delivering meaningful environmental benefits, possible only through mainstreaming green design and its products, rather than preserving it as an academic hobby or limited professional interest isolated to small segments of the community. A handful of green buildings coupled with a smattering of permaculture and linked with a sprinkling of solar hot water systems confined to those with the requisite economic resources and blind zeal is unable to make any major environmental advances given current political structures and cultural desires. Worthy intentions misplaced? Maybe ahead of its time? Probably always flawed.

Design also partnered with a 'cradle to grave' ethic resulting in a life cycle design approach. The aim, in addition to fulfilling all the usual production, functional and aesthetic requirements, was to minimise environmental impacts at every stage of a product's life - from materials choice, processing and production, through to distribution, use and reuse, recycling and disposal. It is this life cycle perspective that has formed the cornerstone of ecodesign and won the support and acknowledgment of progressive governments and manufacturers, the global environment movement and an ever growing list of influential designers.

Another notable step towards advocating ecodesign in the late 80s and early 90s was the formation of non-conformist environment-oriented design groups. Frustrated with the general inaction of the major professional design associations in Australia, these groups appeared across Australia. One of the first was the Perth-based 'Designers for the Planet' (1989 - 92). Although chiefly concerned with greener graphics, the group's concentrated phase of activity managed to attract publicity and national interest. In New South Wales, the Society for Responsible Design (1990 - ) continues to operate as a practice-based group which also services the information needs of consumers wanting more information about greener products and buildings. Complete with their own shopfront office, regular newsletter and an ongoing series of forums and lectures, the Society for Responsible Design has managed to make headway despite the usual problems associated with voluntary organisations and limited resources. In Melbourne, the ReDesign group (1991 - 93) disappeared as quickly as the essential oils which expired at its sporadic meetings. A handful of gatherings took place, but it lacked the critical mass (and discourse) of practising designers to keep the momentum and co-ordination sustained.

By far the most active and enduring organisations have been the National Centre for Design at RMIT and the EcoDesign Foundation Inc in Sydney. Whilst often pursuing similar objectives, the emphasis and conceptualisation of methods and solutions have varied dramatically, resulting in a healthy tension between the organisations. The Foundation's challenging range of projects includes professional education programs, the Future Generations' University design contest, exhibitions and publications. Whereas the Foundation has an intellectually complex range of research projects and design directions, the National Centre for Design with offices at RMIT and the University of Technology Sydney, has developed projects and programs covering hands-on ecodesign and life cycle assessment for industry, annual design winter schools, trends analysis and strategic product and policy development. In particular the Centre's EcoReDesign demonstration program has won national and international recognition for its work with manufacturers.

The combined ability of all these organisations in collaboration with Australian companies, governments, industry associations and designers heralds an even stronger and more productive phase in the ongoing development of ecodesign.

Australia has exceptional technical and creative skills; a general commitment to environmental protection and a history of innovation borne out of ingenuity and necessity. Our efforts in linking these areas and developing 'green goods' for Australian and export markets need ongoing support and recognition. It also needs an edge possible through a more cultural grounding which encompasses the 'creative' and the 'technical' rather than dividing them. It's not enough to manufacture garden-edging, compost bins and drink bottles from recycled plastics, although this is a commendable first step. Nor is it adequate to engineer six-star energy ratings for appliances without developing schemes to enable their future disassembly and recycling.

Above all Australia needs a robust ecodesign approach that blends creative excellence, innovation and technical rigour with a view to fearlessly pursuing major environmental and functional objectives.

For more information about the EcoReDesign Program. quarterly newsletter and Information Kit contact:
John Gertsakis or Helen Lewis
National Centre for Design at RMIT
T (03) 9660 2362 F (03) 9639 3412

1.This article concerns itself primarily with product or industrial design for mass produced products, however many of the issues, arguments and principles also apply to other design disciplines.
2.There are several terms in currency around the world that refer to, or define a design process that to varying degrees incorporates, addresses or integrates environmental factors. These include ~ ecodesign, design for environment, sustainable design, green design, environmental design, environment oriented design, life cycle design.
3.Policy document on Products and the Environment, Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, The Hague, Netherlands, 1994.
4. Papanek, V., 1971, Design for the Real World - Human Ecology and Social Change, Pantheon, New York.