An Eye on SustainabilityBy Gabrielle Whelan
Everyone’s talking about the environment these days—mainly in tones of doom and gloom. We’re destroying the planet, and it’s trending. The rainforests are on fire; the ice caps are melting; we have a shortage of materials; plastics are taking over the oceans; temperatures around the world are more extreme, (the colds are colder and the hots are hotter); and we all have an opinion on who’s to blame. That said, perhaps it would be more advantageous for us to shift the conversation away from problems and onto solutions. At the very least, if sustainability solutions were trending, most of us would feel a little more excited to weigh in, and a little less defensive and defeated. Since Whipsaw examines sustainability through a product lens, I sat down with two of our designers of different backgrounds for their unique perspectives on this issue, Whipsaw UX Design Strategist Paul Gifford from California, and Industrial Designer with a focus on eco-innovation, Anna Petritsch from Austria.
To kick things off, we dove into the heart of the matter: product life cycle. You’ve probably heard this term at some point. It refers to the complete life cycle of a product—from where and how a product’s materials were extracted, processed, assembled, packaged, transported and used, to where it winds up after use. The current paradigm wreaking havoc on our ecosystem as it relates to product life cycle is the “Cradle to Grave” approach in which a product is disposed of and makes its way into the ocean or a landfill. To make a positive global shift, the focus needs to be on the “Cradle to Cradle” approach whereby products stay in the circle and ultimately find their way back into the manufacturing process again.
Changing Mindset Through Education
The rule of thumb is that the older we get, the more resistant we become to changing our mindsets, and even more so to changing our ways. Gifford notes that most of us already know the common sense things we should be doing around sustainability, but we often choose convenience over effort. Says Gifford, “I think it’s rare to find people that don’t care about the environment. It’s not that people are lazy…it’s that we’re busy. We all have constraints added to our everyday actions. If we’re cold, we turn off the AC. If we need to get rid of a paper cup, we put it in the recycling bin. Occasionally, however, the AC controls are complicated or the recycling bin is on the other side of the office. Design has a massive opportunity to enable more sustainable behavior by making it easier to do things in a more sustainable way.” Google Maps is one example of how design can influence more sustainable behavior. The app makes public transit information accessible and includes cycling and ride-sharing options, which can nudge users into selecting alternatives to driving.
“If we put more emphasis and appreciation into the maintenance industry, and the fact that we’re being cleaned up after, we would perhaps reconsider many of our daily decisions since we would realize their impact more fully.”
Gifford also suggests that a change of mindset can be achieved if we simply get outside more and observe what actually goes into keeping our neighborhoods and urban communities clean. “People need to acknowledge all that goes into that infrastructure and what is required for urban cleanliness. If we put more emphasis and appreciation into the maintenance industry, and the fact that we’re being cleaned up after, we would perhaps reconsider many of our daily decisions since we would realize their impact more fully.” Most of us are anesthetized to how our communities are cleaned and cared for, and just getting out and visiting a recycling center, for example, could be the eye opening experience needed for a shift in perspective.
Additionally, many of us simply need a bit more guidance when it comes to the purchases we make and how to properly dispose of our products after use. When it comes to packaging, for example, (which has been at the forefront of the discussion around sustainability and product design), we can work to change our mindset around the concept of packaging and actively look for opportunities to eliminate it altogether. Both Gifford and Petritsch suggest we seek ways to reduce packaging, reuse bags when possible, and use packages made of mono and recyclable materials. Some of this takes just a bit of research, but once you’re more informed it’s easy to start creating better purchasing habits.
Single-use products have also been deemed enemies of the environment. If they are properly disposed of, however, some are not quite as bad as you think. The issue is, many single use products have built a brand around their product’s clean and efficient process for say, serving up a premium cup of coffee, so many of their consumers don’t want to go against that image and deal with the mess that is, well, waste. Efforts to have these customers return such products for recycling have accordingly received mixed results. Perhaps the key then is to use social media and other channels to encourage consumers of single use products to take that extra step by showing the environmental impact of tossing them in the trash, and to make it easier to return them by setting up neighborhood deposit centers. We should also look to purchase products of comparable quality and efficiency from companies using materials like biopolymers that safely decompose no matter which waste bin they are tossed into.
To support the Cradle to Cradle approach, there are certain things you can start avoiding today. Petritsch recommends avoiding simple things like wrappers with multilayer foils, straws, and single-use bags. She points out, “The most sustainable option is not always what you think. Plastic, for example, is obviously not without its faults, but when disposed of correctly, it is a material that can be reused better than others.” That said, given the severity of the plastic crisis we’re facing with our oceans, the mindset regarding plastics needs to shift into something we only purchase if we’re 100% committed to recycling it properly after use.
On that note, educating consumers on exactly how to separate waste is also critical. In businesses, schools, public centers, etc, the simple act of labeling bins as “landfill,” “recycling” and “compost,” for example, tremendously helps people determine what goes where. No one wants to add to the landfill problem, but many of us are so busy that we toss things into the trash without taking that extra moment to consider the outcome. Seeing the word “landfill,” however, has a psychological effect that creates the pause we must take before acting.
Petritsch notes that in Europe (broadly speaking), children seem to have a solid understanding of how to sort different types of waste and why. This is something we should strive to imitate in the US as well. There are already a number of schools that successfully incorporate education around sustainability into their k-12 curriculums, but we could always implement more. Attending PTA meetings and simply having conversations with teachers to see what children are learning in the classrooms and how to reinforce those lessons at home is also paramount for shaping children’s attitudes around sustainability. Teaching children the best ways to recycle, compost, and lower their carbon footprint in general will make them more sustainable adults. After all, the easiest way to ensure the world is different tomorrow is to educate tomorrow’s minds.
When it comes to purchasing products, consumers would also make more eco-friendly decisions if there was more transparency provided right on the product’s label. If you see the calories listed on the menu beside that giant burrito you’re craving, you may hesitate before purchasing it. Similarly, if a product listed all their materials on the label, the customer would inevitably give consideration while purchasing it to how it will eventually be disposed.
If a product listed all their materials on the label, the customer would inevitably give consideration while purchasing it to how it will eventually be disposed.
Regarding To Go coffee cups, for example, Gifford notes, “Many people aren’t aware these cups are glazed with plastic on the outside, so they’re not recyclable. So, just as with calorie counts listed on a food wrapper, all companies could be more transparent and state whether or not you’re getting something that will ultimately end up in a landfill.” Petritsch echoed this sentiment, commenting, “Unless people truly understand it, they’ll purchase anything with an eco-friendly label, so including more specific details on the label is invaluable.”
Some companies, such as Patagonia and REI, already do an effective job of incorporating transparency of materials and manufacturing processes directly into their brand. By using materials that last longer and are more recyclable, customers then use the brand to identify themselves as subscribing to certain environmental philosophies. Thus, a sense of trust and lifelong brand loyalty emerges. What’s more, it’s clear today’s consumers have begun expecting brand transparency and some companies are already catering to that desire. If we also come to expect companies to be transparent about their sustainability practices, chances are, businesses will respond.
From Whipsaw’s perspective, we aim to work with clients that already weave that sense of sustainability into their brands. We also have conversations early on about how we can make the design process as transparent and environmentally friendly as possible. Says Petritsch, “Working out what will happen after the product is made is something you and the client can discuss together from the outset. Going through scenarios with them, for example, about what would happen if the product should break; how it will be transported; and how it will be disposed of can make all the difference.”
Some companies have recently begun to fund environmental conservation efforts, but on a larger scale for all companies to do more, there needs to be intervention. To that end, governments could tighten legislation around sustainability and offer bigger tax breaks to companies and individuals helming green efforts. Until then, many businesses in the US still look for substantial financial incentives to be more sustainable. “Impact investing” is one incentive for startups to focus more aggressively on sustainability because it opens them up to receive investments from financiers seeking to back companies that adhere to greener practices.
More sustainability incentives could be given to consumers as well to effect change. Major companies like Starbucks, for example, could offer incentives such as, say, reuse your plastic lid on your next beverage and you’ll receive a discount on that order. We could also imitate paradigms that work in other countries that incentivize the recycling experience. In Germany, for example, Petritsch notes that grocery chains put deposit centers for plastic bottles, glass bottles, and aluminum cans at the entrances to their stores. Customers unload the bottles when they arrive; a receipt prints out; they shop as usual; and then they present the receipt to the cashier at checkout for a discount based on the number of items deposited. We could encourage that same setup throughout the US by directly reaching out to local store owners and drumming up buzz on social media.
“Within UX, who we are designing for has expanded from a solitary user to an intimately connected web of people, spanning the globe.”
When I asked for some final thoughts, Gifford provided some perspective on the user experience side of the equation. Says Gifford, “Within UX, who we are designing for has expanded from a solitary user to an intimately connected web of people, spanning the globe. So now the scale of what we’re designing for has shifted from product, to companies, to economic systems. UX can promote a more circular approach which means that products no longer have a life cycle with a beginning, middle, and end.” Thus, seeing as UX now has the power to shape the daily behaviors of millions of people, incorporating sustainability into UX design has become a moral responsibility.
All said, this is just a starting off point and these solutions require us to first change our attitudes and then our habits as companies and individuals. Once we’re in the habit of being sustainable creators and consumers, however, urging our government and local and online communities to do the same becomes more of a likelihood. The important thing to remember is that cultivating a mindset of sustainability can have a snowball effect just as big as any landfill.
Whipsaw was selected as one of the Top 100 Green Design and Manufacturing businesses of 2014 by The Chicago Athenaeum and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies, and received Green Good Design awards for our designs of the Yubo Lunchbox and the Leitz Icon Printer. We’ve also been able to incorporate sustainability into our design thinking for some of our other recent designs, including the redesigned Brita, the HUBB Lifetime Oil Filter, the Eton FRX Series, the Tonal Strength Training System and the Ceribell EEG machine. We seek to create environmental solutions with clients whenever possible, and we are committed to doing more for the planet as we move into the future.