Sustainable design, consumption and change

It’s much-maligned, but Melbourne’s bike share scheme has the right idea. avlxyz/flickr

There’s been a boom in sustainable products and packaging from keep cups to green bags - but how important is sustainable design in reducing our global footprint?

Sustainable design can play a critical role in reducing our impact on the environment.

But we need to acknowledge the gap between the large scale of unsustainability described in the scientific literature (suggesting we need a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions and resource use) and the current initiatives employed by designers and the general public to reduce their ecological impact.

Eco-design has its limits

If every Australian household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving their cars tomorrow, total household emissions would only decline by about 18%.

The challenge for design is to identify and engage in the remaining 82% of emissions.

Traditional eco-design has successfully designed energy-efficient appliances such as fridges, lights, air conditioners and TVs. When matched with appropriately-designed, well-insulated homes of modest size, these can easily be powered by renewable energy.

As appliances become more efficient, and renewable energy costs fall, direct household emissions can be massively reduced.

This is not new – the well-designed Rocky Mountain Institute headquarters has been running on renewable energy for near 30 years.

Add the cost of solar panels to your home loan with a large enough capacity to power an electric car or motorbike for your average commute and the repayments could be less than your current combined monthly electricity and fuel bill.

This is a positive trajectory leading to zero emissions from your house and car travel that should be embraced in light of ever-increasing costs of a coal-fired grid (with or without a carbon tax).

But none of this engages the remaining 82% of emissions – or acknowledges that being stuck in traffic for a three-hour commute each day is a terrible use of one’s time.

So we need to reframe the question beyond just being efficient. Where does the remaining 82% of emissions come from?

Feeding a bad habit

The embodied emissions in the food we eat (28.3%) and the goods and services we purchase (29.4%) are major contributors.

Green shopping bags are held up as a beacon of sustainable behaviour. But the impact from using a green shopping bag is negligible compared to the embodied energy and emissions of the food you put in it at the supermarket.

Then consider that over 30% of food purchased is wasted in the home and you have a design problem worth resolving.

The embodied energy in the food we waste is equivalent to the amount of energy our homes use.

The way food is packaged, stored and prepared relies on a whole suite of designed appliances (packaging, fridge, freezer and cookware).

The most energy-efficient fridge that allows food to spoil in the back is not good design.

Packaging that does not reseal properly allowing food to spoil is not good design.

Offering only one large portion size is poor design.

The designer has a moral obligation to take partial responsibility for users’s actions – acknowledging an intrinsic link between the products that designers design and the everyday activities that people do.

This suggests a more relational approach is needed to understand the problem of “unsustainability” in relation to our everyday activities.

We need to understand what people do with the things we make.

Such understanding is required to lead to more refined design solutions - far beyond just making something “green” or recyclable.

Scaling back and making it work

Designing products with the lowest environmental impact across the entire lifecycle (manufacture, use and end-of-life) is positive practice that should be encouraged.

But this will always be limited in reducing net emissions if the increasing rate and scale of consumption is not in some way restrained.

The counter-philosophy is to find solutions (or activities) with a significantly reduced environmental impact that are capable of working, and encourage their adoption.

Despite the well-documented limitations, the Melbourne bike share scheme is a brilliant example of trying to promote an intrinsically sustainable activity and encourage sharing.

We can also learn from the way Holland’s urban planning is designed for the bicycle, and how Brazilian city Curitiba’s well-designed bus platforms speed up public transit boarding.

Appropriate design can encourage your default activity to be the most sustainable. It makes it easy to do the right thing.

The debate in Australia on moving towards a lower carbon society is dominated by resistance to change.

Perhaps the greatest use of design is to present images and scenarios of what could be possible for a sustainable society.

We can direct the debate to the diversity of alternatives that are possible, currently exist, work, and for the most part, are better.