Why We Need a Globally-Recognized Unit of "Green"

I recently overheard a conversation between several design professionals who were debating a product's environmental sustainability. The discussion ranged from power consumption (carbon footprint) and form factor (material economy) to ease of disassembly (recyclability). In discussing the pros and cons of each, the designers demonstrated two phenomena that beg to be addressed: suspicion of the company's green claims and the fatigue of trying to comprehend the tradeoffs. Which lead me to wonder: Has concern around greenwashing caused a backlash against items that are legitimately sustainable in their design?

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The issue was the use of bamboo for an electronic product intended for the living room. The designer had chosen bamboo to provide a suitable look while enhancing sustainability compared to competing products. Bamboo takes a stain very well so it has a beautiful finish—important for a living space—and it is strong as well as fast-growing, so it can replace slow-growing woods, earning its excellent sustainable reputation. It's a favorite for floors, wall-coverings and clothes, but, so far, rare in electronics. Rather than applaud this material choice, however, the designers questioned it as greenwashing. They said its prevalence in both sustainable products and products pretending to be sustainable cost it credibility. In fact, they went so far as to say bamboo is a material whose time has come and gone and that it should now be avoided.

What a dilemma for designers! Choose a material that grows like grass but risk alienating confused consumers, or choose another that grows like timber but risk alienating the well-informed consumers. One choice is certainly a missed opportunity to make an environmental difference, but earning a reputation for greenwashing could have negative implications for a company doing the right thing.

bare by soloIf design professionals are struggling with this dilemma in specifying materials, how are consumers supposed to make informed decisions? Consider the BARE disposable plates made by Solo, positioned as a sustainable choice, and—yes—made from pulp-molded bamboo, as well as sugarcane. Comparably priced to similar products, they offer consumers a legitimate choice. The package affirms this by stating that BARE is an acronym for "Bringing Alternative Resources to the Environment." But what exactly does that mean? When I was asked recently, "Is virgin bamboo fiber more sustainable than recycled paper fiber?" I was stumped. My assumption is yes, because I gather that recycling paper is deceptively water- and power dependent, but I really don't know and I'm reasonably sure the answer is not readily accessible.

bambuThese discussions reinforce what I have long felt: While many want to make purchasing choices that support sustainable lifestyles, they are rarely equipped to do so. Our society needs a universal standard for measuring and comparing "greenness." We have food labels showing calories, fat grams, and protein grams as units of measure that help us make informed decisions around our nutrition. We need similar, well-structured and credible sources to help us make informed decisions around carbon impact, recyclability, and other critical factors of sustainability.

Imagine a consumer at Target choosing between the disposable bamboo plates and disposable plastic plates and checking a label with the green score to help with the choice. We can even call the labels something catchy—like "Greenies." "Hey!" A suddenly triumphant husband calls to his wife. "These bamboo plates are only 3 Greenies—those plastic plates are 5!"

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Ken Musgrave has been building and leading Dell's Experience Design Competencies, including industrial design, visual identity, and usability, at Dell Inc. for the past eight years. The team now extends globally with creative professionals in Austin, Texas, Singapore, and Taiwan. For the first twenty years of Dell's history it enjoyed growth through operational efficiencies and superior cost structure. Three years ago, Dell recognized that the principles and process that got it to that point would not be the same ones that would carry it into the future. Design has been at the forefront of that cultural shift. Ken has lead the development of a design competency and design culture through that transformation—including seeing Dell move from being a U.S.-centric manufacturer of computers to being a global source for great product experiences.

At Dell Ken has lead design-centered strategies ranging from consumer personalization to enterprise experiences. Before Dell, Ken led several design leadership and corporate identity roles at Becton Dickinson, a medical technology company. While there he led a global program to redefine the company's visual, product and global corporate identities. Ken holds an MBA from the University of Utah, an MS in design from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a BS in industrial design from Auburn University.

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15 Comments

  • Joseph Palmer

    Sorry, I couldn't get past the other small detail evidenced in the photos of the BARE products; we wrap up these "green products" in some form of plastic/paper that probably will never make it back to the mfg cycle.

    Joseph Palmer

  • Joseph Palmer

    Sorry, I couldn't get past the other small detail, we wrap up these "green products" in some form of plastic/paper that probably will never make it back to the mfg cycle.

  • Deepak Madnani

    Alice is still in wonderland! The confusion with understanding what Green really is is us still trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The simple reason why its so confusing is because everything - from the physical raw material procurement, manufacturing, selling, distribution, and ideas - of affluence high standard of living, quality of life, our lifestyles - needs to change. Simple things like - I'll throw this away, to be tidy. Where is 'away'? Away is the Pacific Ocean garbage island! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pa...
    Accountability has come full circle. We're still justifying our lifestyles by buying green products. How we live, what we eat, what we buy, how we produce, what we do, ALL has to change. This is the reality. Its not that we're in denial or we're resisting, we just don't know any better. As we're trying to do some good, we're 'doing the same things and expecting a different outcome' - a common definition of insanity. Once Alice wakes up, and truly understands the reality, then this will all make more sense. Pls see Ray Anderson's talk on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/ray_a...
    Its a big step in the right direction - he gets it.
    All this chatter is moving in the right direction - this is how we'll realise how much we don't know!
    I'm based in China and manufacture furniture. Am emotional about all the pollution, transport charges, extra packing, etc etc, that goes into making furniture (or anything for that matter) and shipping it overseas. Am trying to do my part by using sustainable materials; its not easy. I know that much more needs to be done.
    ------
    Deepak Madnani - MD
    Solar Exports Ltd
    www.solarindustries.cn
    www.solarfurniture.cn

  • Steve Lafferty

    Good points which need to be heralded throughout the land....
    Just like all effective medicines, it will need to be accompanied by education and disclaimers. There is not just one characteristic that makes a product "GREEN," as the article points out. A particular product may be made from 100% recycled materials, may be 100% carbon-neutral in its manufacturing process (is this possible?), and may not offgas during its lifecycle. Almost every ratings system would classify this as "GREEN" and everyone would be excited to specify it and use it.

    BUT...if this product is produced in Siberia, Russia and takes 4 trucks, a boat and a plane to get to where it is ultimately used, how can that be evaluated? Or even communicated to the consumer without constraining free enterprise and the entrepreneurs' ability to make rapid transportation solutions? It could be that a similar product that is manufactured from raw materials grown locally, manufactured locally, but with some environmental impact may have a lesser environmental impact than the "100% GREEN" product manufactured halfway across the earth and transported to the point of use.

    I believe that is the elephant in the room we must all deal with somehow.

  • Steve Lafferty

    Good points which need to be heralded throughout the land....
    Just like all effective medicines, it will need to be accompanied by education and disclaimers. There is not just one characteristic that makes a product "GREEN," as the article points out. A particular product may be made from 100% recycled materials, may be 100% carbon-neutral in its manufacturing process (is this possible?), and may not offgas during its lifecycle. Almost every ratings system would classify this as "GREEN" and everyone would be excited to specify it and use it.

    BUT...if this product is produced in Siberia, Russia and takes 4 trucks, a boat and a plane to get to where it is ultimately used, how can that be evaluated? Or even communicated to the consumer without constraining free enterprise and the entrepreneurs' ability to make rapid transportation solutions? It could be that a similar product that is manufactured from raw materials grown locally, manufactured locally, but with some environmental impact may have a lesser environmental impact than the "100% GREEN" product manufactured halfway across the earth and transported to the point of use.

    I believe that is the elephant in the room we must all deal with somehow.

  • Steve Lafferty

    Good points which need to be heralded throughout the land....
    Just like all effective medicines, it will need to be accompanied by education and disclaimers. There is not just one characteristic that makes a product "GREEN," as the article points out. A particular product may be made from 100% recycled materials, may be 100% carbon-neutral in its manufacturing process (is this possible?), and may not offgas during its lifecycle. Almost every ratings system would classify this as "GREEN" and everyone would be excited to specify it and use it.

    BUT...if this product is produced in Siberia, Russia and takes 4 trucks, a boat and a plane to get to where it is ultimately used, how can that be evaluated? Or even communicated to the consumer without constraining free enterprise and the entrepreneurs' ability to make rapid transportation solutions? It could be that a similar product that is manufactured from raw materials grown locally, manufactured locally, but with some environmental impact may have a lesser environmental impact than the "100% GREEN" product manufactured halfway across the earth and transported to the point of use.

    I believe that is the elephant in the room we must all deal with somehow.

  • Harry Otsuji

    What relevance does greenwashing in use of bamboo affecting the fickle American consumer have on millions of children starving where the stuff grows? Somehow there's a disconnect between designers' product design focus and real life and death sustainability issues that haunt us on a global basis. To get a glimpse at the contrast in values, go see Slumdog Millionnaire.

    Faithfully yours,

    /s/ harry H. Otsuji

  • Travis Price

    Finally a clear statement about the delusion of "green washing". Having been a solar pioneer in the early 70's and creating substantive green architecture continuously since then, it is easy to attest to getting rid of pulp fiction like plyboo, myopic criteria for bureaucrats only like - LEED certifactions and moving back to the simple notion of BTU's/SF/climate. This is where the petal hits the metal. For instance, if you are designing with recycled materials you've started on the wrong foot. The green machine mania out there is a temporal fix mostly. The non ending list of fixes is veneer as it gets. Frankly, I would assert that the standards are simplistic at best and essentially words like green, sustainable, natural etc should all go on a 2 year sabbatical. In the end great design in natural harmony will simply prevail and reduce consumption. The rest of this is a superficial market grab at best for a very noble cause that in the end will do better without a master word solution. Let's get beyond the vogue green and back to the purple. Travis Price

  • Joshua Letourneau

    Very interesting post. I believe you're describing the chasm that exists between consumer perception and reality. The marketeer's job is to sell a story . . . in some cases where the story may be nothing more than a myth. Nonetheless, consumers believe the story (i.e. if there is a leaf on the packaging, it must be superior from a "green" perspective) and purchasing behavior is driven by snowballing the 'uninformed' consumer community (where many would argue the 'real money' really is.) There is a much bigger point to your article here, and it involves willingness to trade integrity for income - easy from a theoretical standpoint, but difficult in actual practice.

    Joshua Letourneau
    Executive Recruiter: Product Safety, Regulatory Compliance
    www.linkedin.com/in/jletournea...

  • Justin Fyles

    While I absolutely agree that a large number of items touted as "green" are far from it (Prius anyone?), I wince at the idea of a global governing body. Governments would race to embrace the organization in an effort to appear more "green" and in the end the definition of "green" would be entirely politically motivated. Plus they would waste our tax dollars doing it.

    A better solution would be to start a completely non-profit organization that becomes trusted by consumers at accurately assessing the ecological impact of items. And this impact cannot be on a simple 1-10 scale. Something is not simply good for the environment or bad for it. Everything has a different effect on the environment, and we need to determine what that is...not simply rate it on a scale from 1-10.

    In the end the true choice comes down to the consumer. A lot of the other commenters here are talking about how people are too lazy/stupid to buy green things. In my opinion the truly ignorant people are those who tout a green lifestyle and then fill their prius with ethanol-enhanced gasoline.

    Do some research. Get educated. Take responsibility.

  • Steve Lafferty

    Good points which need to be heralded throughout the land....
    Just like all effective medicines, it will need to be accompanied by education and disclaimers. There is not just one characteristic that makes a product "GREEN," as the article points out. A particular product may be made from 100% recycled materials, may be 100% carbon-neutral in its manufacturing process (is this possible?), and may not offgas during its lifecycle. Almost every ratings system would classify this as "GREEN" and everyone would be excited to specify it and use it.

    BUT...if this product is produced in Siberia, Russia and takes 4 trucks, a boat and a plane to get to where it is ultimately used, how can that be evaluated? Or even communicated to the consumer without constraining free enterprise and the entrepreneurs' ability to make rapid transportation solutions? It could be that a similar product that is manufactured from raw materials grown locally, manufactured locally, but with some environmental impact may have a lesser environmental impact than the "100% GREEN" product manufactured halfway across the earth and transported to the point of use.

    I believe that is the elephant in the room we must all deal with somehow.

  • Steve Lafferty

    Good points which need to be heralded throughout the land....
    Just like all effective medicines, it will need to be accompanied by education and disclaimers. There is not just one characteristic that makes a product "GREEN," as the article points out. A particular product may be made from 100% recycled materials, may be 100% carbon-neutral in its manufacturing process (is this possible?), and may not offgas during its lifecycle. Almost every ratings system would classify this as "GREEN" and everyone would be excited to specify it and use it.

    BUT...if this product is produced in Siberia, Russia and takes 4 trucks, a boat and a plane to get to where it is ultimately used, how can that be evaluated? Or even communicated to the consumer without constraining free enterprise and the entrepreneurs' ability to make rapid transportation solutions? It could be that a similar product that is manufactured from raw materials grown locally, manufactured locally, but with some environmental impact may have a lesser environmental impact than the "100% GREEN" product manufactured halfway across the earth and transported to the point of use.

    I believe that is the elephant in the room we must all deal with somehow.

  • Steve Portigal

    This is a great post, because it needs to be said. Over and over again. I appreciate the focus being placed back on the decision-maker. This is just poor usability, something we've been trying to deal with (with significant but not anywhere near total success) for a couple of decades now; I've seen a lot of design concepts for services that will try to provide some solution but until someone does, we know the government won't do it, and it seems to be up to the individual manufacturers to try to create a compelling story (Patagonia?).

    I was in the grocery store buying aluminum foil this past weekend; something I rarely am responsible for purchasing. And there's a green stripe on one of the boxes, for 100% recycled aluminum foil. And a price premium, to boot. And I had to stand there in the info-impoverished grocery store and think, wait, are the OTHER products made from aluminum that comes from a mine? That makes little sense. Maybe aluminum foil is made from the discarded bits of milled aluminum, it's certainly not made from the "good stuff" that we need to be saving, so is this a scam? I passed on it, because I don't trust that brand to really be doing something "green." In lieu of actual information about the unit of greenness, I used the brand as a substitute.

    --
    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/

  • Mario Vellandi

    Oh how turning complexity into simplicity would be so fantastic.
    People have discussed this for more than a decade, and competitive awareness & dollar battles have been fought and continue.

    Recognizing that people will never seek to understand all the issues, there's two approaches to make more sustainable products reach the shelf.

    Eco-labeling is great, IF people care to see & read. But trust comes down to awareness & credibility. With the plethora of labels out there (single and multi-attribute), the godsend would be a recognized scorecard label mechanism.

    The ANSI meetup in April, cosponsored by the EPA, had sought to ignite conversation around what the situation looks like, the opportunity for collaboration, and so on. However, orgs (new & longstanding) are all scrambling for voice share and recognition. I know some folks deep into this field and it ain't pretty. But luckily, there are some objective principles by which standards can be compared for critical analysis and relative superiority. I believe an overarching umbrella label is possible, but not without significant support from government & insurance bodies. The governing organization will have to be nonprofit, and the standard consensus-based. Of course also being ISO, ANSI accredited, and 3rd party verified.

    The other path involves retailer and trade association pressure for environmental/social product attribute improvement and declarations. Viable frameworks for EPDs already exist, but they still don't address the common measurement system needed for reliable comparison, hence the need for a common framework.

    I believe the solution is out there, but adoption is definitely not easy, especially for small manufacturers with relatively simple products.

  • Beth Respess

    i absolutely agree - even products that are legitimately innovative in one area can be absolutely horrifying in others. something like they use on Consumer Reports might work - 5ish categories scored 1-10, so that when there are 2 products that score differently in different categories, consumers can decide based on which categories are most important to them.