Product designers and the planet - heroes or villains?

25th January 2021

Product designers and the planet - heroes or villains?

A brilliant teacher once gave me a copy of Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek, and it changed my life. Inspired by the concept of ethical design, I signed up for Voluntary Service Overseas as soon as I finished my degree. That led to four years in Sierra Leone designing simple farm equipment, and a further eight working as a consultant for the UN and World Bank on appropriate transport technologies in Africa and Asia.

I eventually settled back in the UK and established a product design practice near Oxford. 

Somewhere along the way I realised that Papanek’s book, though still an inspiration, was made possible because he’d had a successful career and could afford, later in life, to criticise conventional design and advocate a more socially based, environmentally focussed approach to design and manufacture.

So here I am, later in my life, teetering on the brink of gross hypocrisy.

Who? us?

As product designers, we have to accept that we are fundamentally complicit in the production of vast amounts of waste, and of turning a blind eye to where our creations are made, how much pollution they generate, and the working conditions of those employed to make them.

Nor is it enough to support most claims about recycling, so-called ‘eco plastics’ and other attempts to pretend that we can carry on doing what we’re doing with a few small tweaks.

The easy fixes that seem to offer simple solutions are often highly misleading. Many products don’t get recycled because it isn’t profitable. Most ‘green’ plastics require very specific facilities to help them break down or they’ll behave like any other plastic. Even the current passion for electric cars looks pretty misguided when you look at the simple numbers that make up their total carbon lifecycle.   

So, all doom and gloom then?

Well no, not quite.

There is one major and important difference between advocating environmentally responsible design in the 1970’s and the 2020’s. Back then, only us hippies were interested in alternative technologies and sustainability. Things are very different now. The climate emergency is not going away. Sustainability – or the appearance of it – is now good business, and product designers have a significant role to play in delivering genuine results.

None of this changes the fundamental truth that manufacturers need to maximise profits and minimise costs, but there are things that we can do to encourage positive choices. Some of these require significant changes in design thinking and methods, whilst others just need a slight change in approach.

Above all, they require product designers to become more engaged with the results of their work and give up the ‘I only designed the gun, I didn’t fire it’ approach that has typified our approach for too long.

Two cheers for plastic

Plastics are great. They’re cheap, strong, versatile, easily moulded into virtually any shape and available in an infinite range of colours. A plastic moulding is the go-to solution for virtually any problem, but we have become addicted to the stuff. There are huge creative, economic and environmental opportunities in controlling our habit and using plastics only when no other solution can be found.

One obvious action would be to question the use of co-moulded or two-shot plastics that cannot be separated for recycling. In some situations, like medical applications, they are essential, but if it is just to make a toothbrush handle more comfy, is it really worth dumping upwards of a billion of them in landfill each year (and that’s only the USA)?

Given that all metals are easier to recycle than most plastics (and that metals therefore get recycled more often) why not look for opportunities to use die castings or sheet metal instead of mouldings? Wood, ceramics, metals - there are some great creative ideas being explored by designers who are looking for alternatives to plastics, and many of them end up with higher commercial and aesthetic values than their moulded competitors.

It’s ok, we’re using bio plastic!

Whether it came from oil or corn starch, once something is polymerised, it is plastic, which - by definition - has strong material bonds that are designed to last a long time. Sure, materials like Polylactic Acid (PLA) can be broken down by composting, but only if it is treated in industrial composting units that operate at high temperatures. This means that the term ‘compostable’ is not always what it appears to be.

Sadly, most so-called bio plastics are not good for the environment but are just intended to make us all feel better about our single-use bag or cup. Most of these products that have ended up in the sea are still bobbing about after several years. We need to become more informed about the realities of these materials and less influenced by the ‘greenwashing’ that appears in the media.

Take ownership of our waste

We currently outsource much of our manufacturing and recycling, making ourselves look responsible whilst increasing carbon emissions and pollution in large parts of Asia. This means that our cost calculations for imported parts are skewed because they don’t take account of carbon emissions, particularly in terms of air freight. If these had to be part of our costings, local manufacture in the UK might look more attractive, particularly if we could use clean energy. This raises some interesting points about repatriating our manufacturing emissions, but also has some obvious economic benefits, particularly in the brave new world of post-brexit Britain.

The redevelopment of our industrial base is certainly needed. The much-promised ‘March of the Makers’ that was going to rebalance the economy following the economic crash of 2007 has yet to materialise and large areas of the UK that were once referred to as the ‘workshop of the world’ are now in urgent need of regeneration. New manufacturing facilities in the UK could potentially benefit the economy and the environment, particularly if they focussed on the development of clean energy, as proposed in the Green New Deal proposed by the New Economics Foundation.

Repair, reuse and recycle

This mantra of the Circular Economy places recycling in its correct place – as a last resort. Our first target for any new product should be to make it repairable and designed for a long life. This would have been laughable not so long ago, but the economic necessities of built in obsolescence are becoming less acceptable, and the idea of repairing products is – certainly at the moment – popular. Concepts like up-cycling and repair cafés may seem very fashionable, and therefore temporary, but they are positive trends that can help reduce the incredible amounts of waste that we generate every year. More repair workshops appearing on our struggling high streets would be no bad thing.

Designers can clearly support this by making products that are easier to take apart and repair. This would not necessarily make products more expensive and may actually increase their commercial competitiveness. The growth in smartphone repair workshops shows that keeping existing products working makes economic as well as environmental sense, as does the trend to buy reconditioned rather than new gadgets.

When a product does reach the end of its life, we need to be more informed and aware of what will happen to it. Our relationship with recycling is based more on trust and hope than knowledge. Some large-scale appliance recycling plants do exist, based on shredding products in massive grinders and separating the constituent materials for reprocessing. Equally, high value parts that contain large amounts of copper and similar materials will be processed for recycling because it makes economic sense. However, we must recognise that other products that are deemed too tricky or expensive to recycle in the UK will end up in landfill or dumped in African countries to be picked apart by child labour.

Less really is more

Considering the dramatic climate changes that are now becoming more evident by the day, it hard to avoid the conclusion that our only option is to do less. Less air travel, less consumption of rubbish products that last five minutes, less waste of energy. Looking for ways to modify our processes to find ways to carry on as normal – like battery powered airliners – are unlikely to work. Never mind the energy needed to build such systems, can you imagine the ‘range anxiety’ associated with flying in a battery powered plane?

We need to look for new ways of living that don’t assume that we can do whatever we like, whenever we want to and suffer no consequences. The implicit changes to where we live, how we live, what we buy and how we consume energy will be significant. Domestic solar power systems, new forms of personal transport, genuinely integrated public transport networks, better forms of communication that avoid travel altogether – all these and more offer real challenges - and opportunities - to designers and manufacturers in the coming years.

Product designers may have been complicit in creating the problems we are now facing, but their skills and creativity could also be a significant part of the process of finding solutions.

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