The average consumer buys a product for two reasons, because it’s needed or on a whim. One way or another, only a minority of us are particular about the products we purchase in terms of environmental impacts and health effects. The composition of a product is a mystery in itself and any list of ingredients oftentimes contains words that are unpronounceable chemical names that can damage our health or the environment, chemicals present during manufacturing, at the time of use, and/or at the time of disposal.
An example is a carpet that while being used (walked on, etc.) releases chemicals and fine fibre particles into the environment, facilitating respiratory illness or increasing allergies.
William McDonough and Michael Braun gart — authors of Cradle to Cradle call this “product plus.” Consumers bring home products and also components about which they’re unaware. In order to comply with fire safety regulations, for instance , many carpets have melamine-reinforced backing, though melamine has been linked to cancer and possible kidney damage.
The consumer’s odyssey as a hostage continues with products at the end of the product lifecycle. What is one to do with the old item? Dispose via landfill or incineration? Recover energy? Recycle it? And if the latter, will it be upcycling, recycling or downcycling? In the case of some materials, recycling may yield an environmental impact, even if we prefer it to disposal. None of this is really in the consumer’s mind; disposal or recycling decisions are often in the hands of a municipality or private waste hauler.
There arises, therefore, an urgent need to change designers’ approach to product design, as well as to educate a new generation of environmentally-oriented consumers.
The modern closed-loop concept is sometimes called “cradle to cradle” or design for environment (DfE), the design and manufacture of products that anticipates their complete reuse or recycling into new products at end-of-life. DfE also takes into account energy use and environmental impacts through every stage of a products lifecycle from virgin material harvesting, manufacturing, distribution, useful life and end-of-life management.
In biological terms we would call the initial resources the “nutrition” for the next process. We need new related terms such as technical metabolism, technical nutrient, value of the nutrient and others. Technical metabolism describes the industrial production processes capable of maintaining and re-using valuable natural and synthetic inorganic materials in relatively closed production cycles. Technical metabolism occurs in our “techno-sphere.”
As mentioned, DfE should be part of an educational process that affects everyone in the interaction: the designer, retailer, consumer, recycler or waste disposer. During a small study conducted at the Department of Design at the Faculty of Arts in Kosice, Slovakia, the responses of art and design students were evaluated in relation to a number of eco-design questions. The respondents were familiar with eco-design, yet single thing they were able to imagine was the use of ecological material or design that would be harmless to the environment. The source of their information was listed as a school or website. Only nine per cent of respondents had heard of the new model of the closed lifecycle or terms like cradle to cradle. None of the respondents considered the health impacts of design upon the consumer throughout a product’s lifecycle.
The study showed that current consumers as well as future young designers are unfamiliar with the environmental proposition of a truly smart product. To design this product is not at all easy, and existing products often cannot be changed at once and in their entirety.
The very design of a product reflects the designer’s attitude towards the environment — whether it’s the material itself, material and energy flows, or product lifecycle and environmental or health impacts, etc. Regular customers currently must either follow the path of either self-education or more or less fully entrust DfE to designers, hoping for the best.
Theory vs. practice
Our generation seems to prefer cheaper and less environmentally-friendly products to the alternatives that sometimes appear more expensive, because their prices take the environment into account in every phase of the lifecycle and, moreover, won’t harm human health.
Often, sellers who are an intermediary in conjunction with the designer, dealer and consumer, hear comments such as these: “At this moment I’m not prepared to spend more money” or “I don’t need higher quality; it’s only for occasional use or a temporary solution” or “this product is needed for our child only; he doesn’t need anything better; we’ll wait until he’s older.”
From those statements it’s clear that many consumers favor the price of the product over quality, completely ignoring environmental impacts and potential health effects. This attitude may be changing, but until it does so more fully, it may be difficult to motivate designers to move in the right direction. This contradiction is evident in our assumption that the consumer motivates the designer. It’s actually the designer who has to motivate consumers to buy a product, and get them excited by sound environmental design.
This article was adapted from a longer paper by Lucia Kopilcáková, M.Sc., of the Faculty of Management from Presov University and Alena Pauliková, M.Sc., Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Faculty at the Technical University in Kosice; Slovak Republic. Contact Lucia at email@example.com