Design has always been used to create products that sell better and thus quench capitalism's insatiable thirst for permanent growth. Thus, over the years, designers have - consciously or unconsciously - become business enablers of an excessive consumer orgy that has led to serious current problems such as climate change, resource scarcity and environmental pollution, and will continue to do so. By now we have reached a point where problems are aggravating and where their consequences can hardly be ignored any more.
As a result, topics such as environmentally-friendly design and production have been increasingly in the media spotlight lately. Not least because of the popularity of the topic, more and more designers seem to be jumping on this bandwagon and suddenly discover their new love for the environment. Hence, products made from seaweed, bamboo, paper, palm leaves, apple scraps and the like are gaining ground. Designers are literally outdoing each other with supposedly sustainable concepts and designs, which they publish on all kinds of social media channels and which, occasionally, are even awarded design prizes.
So far, so good. If only these products were to actually solve our environmental problems and would not merely serve as window dressing in the form of "greenwashing" to reassure critical consumers, while at the same time continuing to drive hyper-consumption, i.e., consumption beyond the actual satisfaction of needs.
Here are a few examples of the difference between greenwashing and sustainable production:
Stereotyping and stigmatization in the selection of materials
Drinking straws, shopping bags and tableware made from paper, toothbrushes made from wood or bamboo, lamps made from seaweed, plates made from palm leaves appear to be environmentally friendly for consumers and are on the rise. In short: plastics are the problem, and natural materials are our rescue; unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as it looks.
Only very few people know that a paper shopping bag or drinking straw, for example, has a far worse ecological balance than a shopping bag or drinking straw made from plastic.
“Paper has the great advantage that, if disposed of incorrectly, it is less problematic than a number of other products that end up in the environment, but that does not per se mean that paper is environmentally friendly, this because it also leaves quite an ecological footprint in the production process. Moreover, quite often more material is needed for a paper product. In addition, paper production has a higher water and energy consumption.” 1
It should also be considered that paper must be moisture-resistant and tear-resistant for such non-classical applications in which it is to replace plastic. This requires a multitude of processing steps such as chemical treatment, coating, rolling, fiber reinforcement, oil treatment etc. On the one hand, this aggressive treatment results in a catastrophic ecological balance and on the other hand, it means that the paper does not dissolve during the recycling process, i.e., it cannot be recycled.
There are indeed many cases in which a product, simply through the fact of being made of paper, is perceived as particularly environmentally friendly, in fact it is not. The consumer, on the other hand, in good faith, continues to consume unnecessary products with a clear conscience. A classical case of greenwashing. The consequence: unbridled consumption and the corresponding waste of resources.
Lack of efficiency
Plates, vases, and glasses with solar cells that are supposed to generate electricity seem innovative and environmentally friendly at first glance; de facto, however, they are detrimental for the environment.
The high complexity and necessary efficiency that we need to master the challenges of our time can hardly be implemented meaningfully in individual products as a "secondary function". The energy of the future will be produced by highly efficient solar power plants and wind farms - the idea of generating energy from a plate seems attractive but is lamentably naive.
Rather, such bogus innovations result in products that neither fulfil their original function optimally nor are efficient enough to make an ecological or economic contribution. They are more or less gimmicks with no scientific basis, designed to make the product appear innovative and ecological, so that it corresponds to the zeitgeist. The added value is less than zero, because the low energy generation - which even after months is not enough to fully charge even a single smartphone – has no bearing on effort, resources used and carbon footprint. Instead, they will be dumped sooner or later and are thus fatal for the environment.
The Upcycling Trap
In principle, it is true that reusing materials and resources is positive and helps us to go easy on resources. It does however become problematic as soon as the principle is misunderstood and misused.
Clothes hangers made from old bicycle tires, clothes from old garbage bags, chairs from old tin cans glued together - such upcycling approaches are trendy and often certainly well-intentioned. However, they are in no way suitable to even begin to solve the complex environmental issues of our time.
The implementation of such ideas is often not suitable for series production and consumes more energy and effort for processing and preparation than is necessary to produce an entirely new product from primary raw materials.
Thus, recycling only makes sense if it involves the systematic and efficient recovery of raw materials from waste products in order to then use these, in such a way extracted, secondary raw materials as the basis for new products.
How to do better
• An objective viewing angle of the facts and figures always makes more sense than unthinkingly fulfilling perceived customer expectations. The use of renewable raw materials is not always the right and best solution. The natural presence of many such materials are far from sufficient to cover our daily needs and they therefore have to be grown artificially in mass cultures and with extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers. The more so, as this is accompanied by environmental impacts such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and high land, water, and energy consumption. At the very least, one should ask whether these disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages of natural origin and biodegradability.
• Pay attention to the meaningfulness and usefulness of a product and avoid unnecessary and superfluous products. There are products that the world simply does not need. If a product has no use, it has no right to exist.
• Replace disposable products with intelligent reusable products. This applies in general and regardless of the material used: disposable products are harmful to the environment, regardless of whether they are made of paper, bamboo, or plastic.
• Pay attention to sustainability. The decisive factor is not the pure ecological balance but the relationship between the ecological balance and the life cycle of a product. In this context, the functional and aesthetic longevity of products also plays a role that should not be underestimated. Particularly striking or timelessly designed furniture, tableware, watches, or jewelry can thus be passed on for decades and become truly sustainable products over time - regardless of what they are made of.
• Recycle-friendly design: If components of a product consist of different materials that need to be recycled in different ways but are very difficult to separate when it comes to disposal, then using recyclable materials is of little use. Here it is beneficial to design easily separable parts.
• The design itself also influences the production effort. Waiving everything superfluous, i.e., design elements that have no function but are simply fashionable and thus not trendy for very long, does not only lead to increased longevity but to the reduction in design also goes hand in hand with a reduction in production effort, which in turn reduces the ecological footprint of a product. If designers are also well aware of the different production methods and their associated energy and material inputs and incorporate them into the design process, the same product can be manufactured much more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way.
1) Excerpt from the interview with Mr. Philipp Sommer, Deputy Head of the Circular Economy Division at the Environmental Action Germany (DUH)