Sustainability: Product Designers Beginning to Dig Deeper

Maybe 4 year old boys know something we don’t.  I’ve recently seen a few lads of this age run outside in the wee hours of the morning when the garbage trucks come and stare in exuberant wonder as trashcans are emptied into the large trucks in a series of jarring mechanical movements and noises.  Something happens after we turn five and six years old.  We just stop caring about trash.  Aside from the color of bins and the nano-second of thought most of us put into categorizing our trash, as far as we know, it disappears off into…trash heaven?

Sustainability.  Green.  These concepts are slowly climbing the charts in our consciousness. Although the product design community seems to be a little behind the building architecture community on implementing sustainability into product design, the seeds are being planted. 

The San Fransisco chapter of the IDSA held a great panel event this week called, Digging Deeper.  The event brought panelists from prominent product design firms and educational programs around the world to discuss in grand fashion, as well as noteworthy detail, the how’s, why’s, what’s, who’s, and when’s of increasing the level of sustainability in the products that an overwhelming majority of, inevitably, will find their way to the landfill.

For the amount that this event was cast in the vein of "sustainability", there was a surprising amount of contempt for the term from some experts.  The same goes for the word "green".  This seemed to be predominantly because many felt these terms conjure up negative associations and images in peoples’ minds.  As much as they might draw favor from some consumers, the terms chafe against those who don’t want to be associated with "treehuggers" and "hippies", or those who foot the bill for these projects and assume that making something more "green" refers to the greater amount of money it will cost, rather than the resources it might save.

Whatever you want to call it, product designers are taking more of an interest in not only promoting environmental sustainability in their projects, but are improving their abilities to do so by coming up with finite steps an industrial designer can take to infuse these concepts into their designs, as well as disseminating the information (check out Lunar Design’s, The Designer’s Field Guide to Sustainability).  Although we have a looonnnnng way to go, I believe this bodes well for the future of sustainability in consumer products.  Regulatory initiatives like WEEE and ROHS are now pushing sustainable practices up the supply chain by putting pressure on manufacturers to cease incorporating specific, harmful materials in their products.  This, coupled with the injection of sustainable concepts from the top down in product design, may make for a compounding of positive results in the way of sustainability and consumer products.