Designing Greener Goods

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I'm getting ready to go off for a week to New Hampshire to attend this year's Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology. I always find it somewhat of a drag to pick up and leave our place on the Maine Coast at the peak of the summer. But the last few days have not been the best. Global warming is certainly coming, judging from the intense heat of the last few days even here right on the coast. This year the focus of the Conference is on design--a subject I am always keenly interested in.

As one of the first persons to work within this still very young academic discipline, I find this focus most welcome. It reflects a maturation and acceptance that the ideas that have evolved over about 20 years are worth putting into practice. Some have already, but mostly unnoticed and not explicitly tied to the field. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the subject, industrial ecology is founded on the idea that natural systems display many of the characteristics we associate with sustainability, and it follows without a lot of thought that we might use knowledge based on these systems to design the socio-economic systems that we live by and in. One of the central ideas is the closing of material loops, in other words, changing our current mostly once-through material economy to one built on intertwined closed loops.

Another important outgrowth of the closed loop concept is life cycle thinking and analysis. Again this simply means that the environmental impact of any artifact must be measured over the entire life cycle from resources extraction through manufacture, distribution, use, and, finally, end-of-life processing. Much of the research in the field has gone into developing tools for life cycle analysis. Life cycle tools have been almost certainly used in some form or another any time green or sustainable something is discussed. The tool is the primary means of determining whether one artifact is less impactful than another. The results of such analyses get backed into the design process in some cases and then are used deliberately to produce new products and services that are greener or more sustainable by the common use of the word.

If these analyses are done carefully and interpreted carefully, the products that emerge will be less harmful than their predecessor, and may contribute to making the globe less unsustainable. These analyses do not tell the whole story, however. No life cycle analysis scheme I know of takes into account the rebound effect which roughly is an increase in consumption produced by the higher eco-efficiency of green products. So unless particular attention is paid to how the excess money is used, gains in greening will be overtaking by economic growth. Eco-efficiency and greening are not exactly the same thing. Eco-efficiency promises more value in economic terms for less impact. Green products often cost more for the same value or functionality.

Those who follow my work know I do not agree with this use of sustainable, and believe it is little more than a subtle form of greenwashing, suggesting that something is sustainable all by itself. But I didn't intend to take much space here to discuss this; I'll wait until I get to the Gordon Conference next week. About half the presentations have sustainable in the title so I expect to be very busy during the discussion. I get the last word as I am part of the closing panel. More later from New Hampshire.