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A scandalously brief history of Eco-designau_g

Toyota Prius "offers amazing fuel economy"...What more could you ask for?

The Insufficiency of 'Eco-Design'

Unfortunately, despite valiant attempts to inform more 'sustainable design practices (e.g. Datschefski, 2001; Fuad-luke, 2005) - these have not had enough impact to stem the growth of a global economic system that threatens our shared well-being. Global carbon emissions are rising steadily, and bio-diversity continues to fall. What more can designers (and others) do to make it better?.

Our resistance to 'Eco-Design'

Although we understand more about our damage to the eco-system (e.g. ‘Ecological Footprint, Wackernagel & Rees, 1996) this knowledge has failed to transform the way most designers practice. Indeed, some designers regard the pursuit of ‘Eco-Design’ (e.g. Mackenzie, 1997) as worthy, but economically risky, or ‘un-designerly’ (Macdonald, 2003). Part of the problem is the enormous power of our economic system, which often seems to undo our best efforts to improve individual products. Ironically, some ‘green’ products may offer false security and therefore encourage new markets and a net rise in consumption.

Brunel shook hands with Byron...

In the 19th century, whilst science and engineering opened up a world of plenty the arts and humanities put us in closer touch with ourselves. (Tarnas, 1991) Where western individualism began to emphasise the distinctiveness of individuals, designers responded with products that reinforced or created customer types. (Forty, 1986).

…F. W. Taylor embraced Picasso

During the 20th century, a stridently competitive and unsustainable pattern of global consumption emerged from these trends. (Ponting, 1991) Where science made us more rational and purposive, the arts helped us to admire ourselves (c.f. Campbell, 1987) as shoppers with ‘attitude’. ‘Feeling good - looking good’ became the creed of a new secular religion. (Wood, 1996)

…designers became brokers between science & art

Arguably, the act of choosing became the cardinal ethic of consumption. As consumers we may choose but we are not encouraged to dream. (Wood, 2000:2002) Ironically, designers belong to a rare caste in that – like artists - they are licensed to dream. However, this is only if they can guarantee that their dream will be attractive to prevailing markets. It must also be managed comprehensively and predictably – i.e. on cost, and to deadline.

..they became product-shifters

Most designers simply accepted economic ‘realities’ and ‘de-futured’ (Fry, 1999) their designs for obsolescence. They played a part in innovations such as non-returnable packaging (1948) and subliminal psychological advertising techniques. (Packard, 1957) By the late 20th century, they had become acknowledged as front-line innovators and ‘fixers’ who guarantee a return on capital investment. (Heskett, 1984) They worked in specialist teams to ensure that a product’s total qualities; functionality, cost, price, ambience, brand image, placement etc. would ensure the maximum competitive impact, commercially. (Fry, 1999), although ‘Eco-design’ came of age …

Unfortunately, the product cycle was conceived more as a creative, than a destructive act, so the subsequent squandering or wastage of non-renewable energy and materials was ignored as a separate problem. A few pioneers sought alternatives, such as advocating a smaller economic scale (Schumacher, 1987), the designing of services, rather than products (Manzini, 1994) or biodegradable, longer lasting, or ‘de-materialised’ products (Diani, 1992).

..many eco-designers accepted market forces...

By the 1980s, many responsible designers learned to respect market forces (Burke & Elkington, 1987; Dewberry, 2000) whilst emulating nature (Benyus, 1997), making their products leaner, cleaner, slower (external link), or by making them more precious or shareable in a larger context. Some entrepreneurs (e.g. McKenzie?, 1991) developed eco-strategies for business. After the 1970s, the long awaited rise in economic growth was fuelled by an increasingly aggressive debt-based currency system (Douthwaite, 1992).

..therefore this level of ‘Eco-design’ is not enough..

Not surprisingly, whilst Eco-design was a crucial innovation, the net consumption of energy, materials, and pollutants continued to rise to an unprecedented level. Without the boundaries of a synergistic community, the apparent gains from specialist eco-design solutions may easily be lost by inappropriate behaviour at another level. Indeed, once the market was declared to be ‘global’ it became more difficult for individual designers to work in an ecologically benign way. By designing ‘greener’ products we also created new markets. To some extent, the language of ‘green design’ persuaded consumers to sustain economic growth because it tended to allay fears over serious public health issues, climate change, resource depletion, etc. we must include economic factors

In the last decade or two, instant, online shopping increasingly came to exemplify what Bill Gates dubbed as ‘capitalism without friction’(1999). Fortunately, some researchers have tried to see the whole cycle from production-to-consumption as a sequence of opportunities for sustainable business (Stahel, 1982; Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 2000). In this scenario, use and re-use may become a ‘zero-waste’ process (Murray, 2002) or a system that can be (meta)designed from ‘cradle-to-cradle’ (MacDonagh, 2002).

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