It’s Easy Bein’ Green

In late March, 120 enthusiastic product and industrial designers, educators, and students filtered into a well provisioned conference room at Pratt-Manhattan in New York to propagate some starts and sow some new seeds in the rapidly growing field of green design. The sold-out, daylong event was the maiden run of Design: Green, a workshop organized by the EPA, the IDSA Design Foundation, and J. Ottman Consulting Inc., aimed at changing industry and market perceptions of sustainable design. A second workshop took place in Minneapolis in April with a third is scheduled for Chicago on June 17.

Design: Green workshop participants apply concepts from the Business-Ecodesign Tool Kit to practical situations.”

The workshop is based on the Business-Ecodesign Tool Kit, a set of guidelines for evaluating the environmental impact of a product. Created by the Environmental Responsibility Section of the IDSA, these tools help quantify a product’s elements by generating an internationally recognized unit of impact called a Life Cycle Analysis number (LCA). In the equation, values are given for energy and resource consumption, the extraction and processing of the raw materials, the pollution produced, and the effects of associated transportation on the environment. A product’s recyclability is evaluated based on its ease of disassembly and the reusability of its elements, giving the producer a picture of how to minimize waste at each stage—or whether to proceed at all.

At the workshop, educators and consultants Jacquelyn Ottman and Erika Doering presented case studies, new products, technologies, and statistical information to convey how small changes at the design stage can have a far greater positive effect than trying to mitigate impact during and after production. Daniel Cudzik’s pop-top beverage-can tab was a case in point: Since 1980, the tabs—which remain attached to the can, eliminating the litter produced by detachable tops—have conserved over 200,000 metric tons of aluminum, 3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, and prevented the discharge of 900,000 pounds each of carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter, 20 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, 42 million pounds sulfur dioxide and over 6 billion pounds carbon dioxide. Innovations like these, the presenters argued, can bolster a product’s global marketability by bringing it into compliance with ever more stringent environmental regulations abroad.

More than just evaluating products, the mission of the workshop is to demonstrate how producing green can be a win-win strategy, increasing a company’s profits while positively distinguishing it from the competition. Ottman and Doering offered some simple “swift approaches” to environmental design: Use recycled materials; increase energy efficiency and substitute alternative energy when possible; reduce toxicity by using “known” and stable compounds; extend product life, moving away from disposable products by creating goods that are durable, upgradeable, and repairable; and provide the product as a service or on a lease basis where the consumer keeps the product through its useful life, and the manufacturer reclaims it for disassembly or refurbishment.

By the afternoon, workshop participants were given the opportunity to apply these concepts to practical situations. During three breakout sessions—sponsored by Aveda, the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, and Philips Lighting—participants tackled eco-design issues like mercury recovery from bulbs, designing reusable packaging, and product reclamation systems.