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?
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.
If 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.
These 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!”
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.