‘We conquered the planet, only to realise that we may be our own worst enemy’ (Fiksel, 2012)
In this essay I wish to explore the true value of design in relation to sustainability, and whether or not it really plays a substantial role in promoting it as a global priority. I shall also analyse the roles of the commercial industries in the fight for sustainability, and to examine their efforts in including green design in their products, alongside their motivations for doing so, through their use of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. However, I also wish to question why this green design only appears most prevalently within these sectors, and to probe why government bodies and policy makers have not made as visible a move on climate change and sustainability. Are CSR programmes using green design really the saviour of sustainability, and if they are, is that design truly pushing sustainability up the agenda to become a global priority?
Firstly, it is important to define just exactly what sustainability means, and there are a variety of definitions. One definition states that it is a form of resource management and protection, where some natural resources must be moved in to a natural capital account (Russ, 2010). In this sense, sustainability becomes a very economic based process. Yet another definition ties it in with many other concepts, in line with the principles of sustainable development, such as ‘environmental, health and safety, social, economic and ethical aspects’ (Fiksel, 2012). However, what they both appear to agree on is sustainability must achieve a degree of protection, and that there is a fine line being using, and harming, and this line must be respected.
Finding ways to respect this line is thus key. Design and creativity is crucial to the process of finding ways to cut waste and increase productivity (Esty and Winston, 2006), whilst also essential to lessen the impacts of our behaviours within our current system (Russ, 2010). Particularly in the retail sector, corporations from Ikea to Nike have jumped on board, integrating various green design strategies into their businesses (Huffington Post, 2009) and it’s a growing and popular trend. Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise company owned by the conglomerate Unilever, ‘has a longstanding commitment to sustainability’, and boasts an arsenal of eco-friendly policies to be achieved by 2020 (Hellmann’s, 2015). Indeed, Joseph Fiksel, author of ‘Design for Environment’, states; ‘Companies will need to push the boundaries of their DFE efforts beyond the individual enterprise, working with customers, suppliers, competitors, and other interested parties’ (Fiksel, 2012). Indeed, it is thus his view that it is the business and corporation sector which will lead the march against climate change, and many businesses are pushing this agenda through sustainable product design.
However, how far can these corporate green policies be trusted, and how useful actually are the plethora of companies’ CSR schemes? In 2008 Volkswagen launched their new Clean Diesel cars, which were presented as being capable of cutting their car’s emissions and harmful effects on the planet, in order to fall within new legal guidelines (VolksWagen 2008). Their achievement was also reinforced by a large marketing campaign (BBC, 2015), heralding their new cars as a more sustainable form of transport. However, in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that Volkswagen had been using internal software within their vehicles in order to effectively ‘cheat’ safety and environmental tests (BBC, 2015). This meant that although the vehicles appeared very eco-friendly during testing, when on the road they were in fact just as harmful as any of their previous vehicles. Overall, it was revealed that eleven million vehicles were fitted with the ‘cheat devices’ worldwide, with engines emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times the allowed amount in the US (BBC, 2015). Thus, what appeared to be a company with great use of sustainable design, both in terms of the product itself, and the slick marketing campaign that ran alongside it, was in fact a law breaking scheme, merely appearing environmentally friendly in order to lure in potential buyers. This therefore calls in to question the reliability of the many CSR programmes claiming to imbed sustainability within their ethos; if one can manage to break the rules for so long, how many others can, and what danger does it pose to us and our planet when we accept these programmes to be truthful and successful? As author and environmentalist Paul Hawken eloquently puts it; ‘recycling aluminium cans in the company cafeteria and ceremonial tree plantings are as effective as bailing out the Titanic with teacups’ (Hawken, 1993). Ultimately, it is possible that the business sector is simply not adaptable or reliable enough to fight the battle for sustainability (Hawken, 1993).
Of course, one should not assume that all companies are merely looking to pull the wool over their customer’s eyes in order to make a profit. Ben and Jerry’s, the infamous ice cream company, has been a huge advocate for climate change and sustainability, using the attractive design of their product and website to educate it’s customers on the issues, and thus raise the profile of sustainability up in the global agenda (Ben and Jerry’s, 2015). Their website itself highlights the battle the planet faces, as they state that; ‘It is more urgent than ever that we take steps to dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions’ (Ben and Jerry’s, 2015). The company are also not merely talk, citing that they have launched carbon offset programmes in some of their manufacturing facilities, ran their own global warming advocacy campaign (Ben and Jerry’s, 2015) and even implemented their own internal carbon tax (The Guardian, 2015). However, ultimately, how much of an impact is Ben and Jerry’s having on the the fight against climate change and the promotion of sustainability? The company themselves goes on to state on their website; ‘We know that voluntary corporate action won’t deliver the large-scale systems change that is required to keep warming below 2 degrees celsius.’ (Ben and Jerry’s, 2015). Therefore, even a company that exercises good, transparent CSR admits that voluntary corporate action (where we see the most amount of design being used towards the promotion of sustainability) is not enough in putting it up the world’s agenda and making it a global priority.
What needs to happen is the realisation that big design ideas coming from corporations will not be there, or at least will not arrive in a timely enough manner, to save us from the impacts of not sustaining a global warming of below two degrees (Klein, 2014). These big ideas are often both in the hands of philanthropists and large corporations, who’s own motivations almost inevitably seem to go beyond the mere drive to save the planet. For example, Richard Branson pledged $3billion dollars to try and invent a low carbon fuel which could sustain his airlines (Klein, 2014) but of course did not simply consider reducing the amount of his planes in the sky, which is a large polluter globally. Another example is Apple’s new ‘spaceship’ campus, soon to be built in Silicon Valley. Although it promises to be a fully sustainable, energy-efficient piece of architecture, in reality it will still exist as a huge piece of construction, costing a full $5billion to complete (Los Angeles Times, 2016). Thus, can the project really be defined as sustainable, or are they just using the concept and associations of the word sustainability to improve their own public image? This striving for bigger and better projects and improved public image would suggest that these businesses cannot be reliably held accountable for climate change. It is thus crucial that the sustainability agenda is taken out of the hands of big business (who so often claim to be making use of green design) and put into solid legislation and global government policy that will force polluters to reduce their activities and thus save the planet.
But the current governmental system is also heavily flawed, allowing for businesses to pollute the planet, and on occasion, even encouraging them to do so. For example, some countries actually benefit from climate change, particularly in the Arctic regions, as the melting ice makes even more areas for excavation accessible (Helm and Hepburn, 2009). There is also currently more oil in reserve than the planet could simply bare to be burnt (Klein, 2014), but companies are legally obliged to do what is in the best interest of their shareholders (NYTimes, 2015), and so thus may continue to burn the oil despite the fact that it is harmful to the planet. Alongside this, both in Germany and the UK, companies are considering opening up new coal-fired power stations (Helm and Hepburn, 2009).
The problem is that the overall design of the way our very system itself works, is ineffective at fighting climate change. Short term goals and the pure impracticability of sustainability drive our global efforts down, and are causing us to fail our planet (Klein, 2014). There are of course many factors that also cross over the sustainability case. Helm and Hepburn point out in their book ‘The Economics and Politics of Climate Change’ , that ‘climate change sits alongside trade negotiations, nuclear weapons negotiations, and migration and human rights negotiations.’ (Helm and Hepburn, 2009), which hints at the fact that we need to change the entire design of our global society, in order to achieve any form of positive change. Focusing on the issue of sustainability itself is insufficient, as governments across the world will need to work together in order to achieve it, and this may be not be possible if, quite frankly, we can’t all get on with one another.
These factors may explain why strategies such as the Kyoto Protocol; an internationally binding reduction in emissions across it’s member parties (UNFCCC, 2014) appears to often fail it’s targets. Naomi Klein, critic of capitalism turned climate change activist, sums up these conflicting interests as she explains that the rise in freer trade and the World Trade Organisation ran parallel to the rise in global commitments to promote sustainability, but the two movements appeared directly opposed to each other in terms of policy (Klein, 2014). For example, products would now be shipped across vast spaces of land, with ships and planes directly negatively impacting the environment, whilst strict patent laws launched by the WTO would prevent developing countries from accessing the technology available to help reduce their carbon footprint (Klein, 2014).
Ultimately, design will play a vital role in the implementation of sustainability, but it is my view that it will certainly not be the driving force of it. As Tom Russ, author of ‘Sustainability and Design Ethics’ points out; ‘Green products and designs suggest that we can simply design our way to sustainability without any changes to ourselves, without any value shift.’ (Russ, 2010). This one dimensional, perhaps naive, approach to fighting climate change will not be enough, as highlighted in the many problems associated with the climate change movement and corporate responses detailed in the previous paragraphs. Relying on green design moves us away from establishing a robust, legally binding framework of governance that both encourages sustainable behaviour and minimises the positives of exploiting the environment; we will also need to accomplish a large behavioural shift if we are to progress on as a sustainable species (Fiksel, 2012). Although the role of design is inevitably important, it is worthy to note that it is rarely on the shoulders of the designers ethics to say no to a project, whether it be green or not, and it is even more unlikely that a designer will question the need for a product altogether (Fry, 2009). A poignant quotation comes from the book ‘Design for Sustainable Change’, which states; ‘designing still belongs to designers, design itself does not’ (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011). Thus, designers and green design act more like a bullet in a gun, as opposed to the firing shot itself. Without government policy and societal change there to pull the trigger, we may be too late to sustain our planet.
Ben and Jerry’s (2015) Save Our Swirled. Available at: http://www.benjerry.co.uk/values/issues-we-care-about/climate-justice (Accessed: 8th of March).
BBC (2015) Volkswagen: The Scandal Explained. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34324772 (Accessed: 9th of March 2016).
Chick, A. and Micklethwaite, P. (2011) Design for Sustainable Change: How Design and Designers can Drive the Sustainability Agenda. Switzerland: AVA Publishing.
Esty, D. and Winston, A. (2006) Green to Gold – How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage. 2nd edn. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Fiksel, J. (2012) Design for Environment, A Guide to Sustainable Product Development. USA: McGraw-Hill.
Fry, T. (2009) Design Futuring – Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. New York: Berg.
The Guardian (2015) Ben and Jerry’s puts a price on carbon; Available at: http://www.nexis.com.arts.idm.oclc.org/results/enhdocview.do?docLinkInd=true&ersKey=23_T23636287333&format=GNBFI&startDocNo=0&resultsUrlKey=0_T23636316503&backKey=20_T23636316504&csi=138620&docNo=9 (Accessed: 8th of March, 2016).
Hawken, P. (1993) The Ecology of Commerce – A Declaration of Sustainability. 3rd edn. New York: HarperCollins
Helm, D. (ed.) and Hepburn, C. (ed.) (2009) The Economics and Politics of Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hellmann’s (2015) Sustainability: A Priority For Hellman’s. Available at: http://www.hellmanns.co.uk/article/detail/1046837/sustainability-a-priority-for-hellmanns (Accessed: 8th of March 2016).
The Huffington Post (2012) Meet The 12 Most Eco-Friendly Companies on the Planet. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-smith/meet-the-12-most-ecofrien_b_1664038.html (Accessed: 10th of March).
Klein, N. (2014) This Changes Everything. 2nd edn. UK: Penguin.
Los Angeles Times (2016) Green building or Greenwashing?;
Designing a skyscraper with a rooftop farm or garden isn’t enough to save the world. Available at: http://www.nexis.com.arts.idm.oclc.org/results/enhdocview.do?docLinkInd=true&ersKey=23_T23654097572&format=GNBFI&startDocNo=0&resultsUrlKey=0_T23654097579&backKey=20_T23654097580&csi=306910&docNo=4 (Accessed: 10th of March, 2016).
NYTimes (2015) Corporations Don’t Have to Maximize Profits. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/04/16/what-are-corporations-obligations-to-shareholders/corporations-dont-have-to-maximize-profits (Accessed: 10th of March 2016).
UNFCCC (2014) Kyoto Protocol. Available at http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php (Accessed:10th of March 2016).
Russ, T. (2010) Sustainability and Design Ethics. New York: CRC Press.
VolksWagen (2008) The Passat. UK: Available at: http://www.volkswagen.co.uk/assets/common/pdf/brochures/old-brochure/Passat-Saloon/Passat-Saloon-August-2008.pdf (Accessed: 10th of March, 2016).