Is eco-design awareness growing in Australian manufacturing and design?

Awareness and interest is certainly growing, and some manufacturing sectors are showing considerable leadership and high levels of innovation. My frustration and that of many others advocating environmentally improved product performance, is the relatively slow pace and haphazard uptake among manufacturers, designers, engineers and others involved in the product development and commercialisation process.

While we have some very progressive designers and manufacturers in Australia and New Zealand who have the foresight and wisdom, there aren’t the drivers and commercial levers in Australia to see widespread adoption of eco-design at this time.

One of the most significant barriers is the lack of effective product oriented environmental regulation that consistently and persistently stimulates the need for eco-design.

It’s fair to say that an absence of relevant policies, legislation, regulations, programs and standards, leads to an incentive vacuum.

Designers and manufacturers in many product sectors don’t have to engage with mandatory eco-design drivers, so they don’t. It’s understandable; however it’s also very blinkered, short term thinking.

On the positive side, there’s some very good activity in the commercial furniture sector.

Companies such as Schiavello, Interlink Furniture, Zenith Interiors, Schamburg and Alvisse, Wharington International and Formway Furniture, are not only doing the PR but investing in environmental R&D, applying eco-design and creating environmentally improved products and services.

What are the indicators or catalysts for change?

The issue of extended droughts and dwindling water storages in several major urban centres has been a catalyst for all sorts of design activity around water efficient and water saving products.

Whether it’s tapware from Caroma, Dorf and other smaller players, or water efficient clothes washers and dishwashers from Electrolux and Fisher and Paykel, some noteworthy products have emerged in recent years, all of which can demonstrate explicit design attention to water conservation.

We’ve seen exemplary technologies like the RainBank water controlling switch from Davey Pumps. The Rainbank represents a great piece of eco-design and helps positively exploit the growing uptake of rainwater tanks in urban areas.

Rainbank enables consumers to effortlessly use their rainwater tanks to help flush toilets and connect to clothes washing machines. When the tank is empty the Rainbank simply switches back to the mains supply.

Although not always described under the buzzword of eco-design, numerous other water saving products have been developed over the last couple of years, including a diverse range of flexible (bladder-like) water tanks, grey water diverters and related treatment technologies.

Although belated, the Design Institute of Australia’s (DIA) foray into eco-design or Design for Environment (DfE) is a very positive step forward in terms of the profession and helping to support and guide the information needs of practitioners.

The DIA’s recent collaborative work with EcoRecycle Victoria (an agency of the Victorian Government), and RMIT’s Centre for Design represents a productive relationship and timely indicator on how this area is progressing in Australia.

What are the main barriers preventing local manufacturers and designers from using eco-design or adopting the concept of product lifecycle management?

Within the context of manufacturers, a key barrier is the lack of incentives. Most (but not all) manufacturers can’t see the immediate need to manufacture goods that take ‘environment’ into account. As suggested, there isn’t the regulatory climate that can act as a catalyst for eco-design and responsible innovation on a widespread basis.

The relative absence of smart regulation and other government driven initiatives to encourage, support and demand ‘green’ products does nothing to promote higher levels among Australian manufacturers.

The general belief (by governments and some in business) in voluntary industry approaches, which typically lack any measurable environmental grunt, has much to answer for when it comes to policy mechanisms that facilitate environmentally improved products and associated activity among companies and designers.

In addition many manufacturers don’t have sufficient confidence in the market place to justify attention to environmental objectives and products with meaningful environmental features.

I’ve heard many a marketing director, product manager or business development manager, joke about the schizophrenia of Australian consumers ie. on one hand their reported attitudes are pro-environmental protection and supportive of greener products, yet on the other hand sales results are supported by purchasing actions when it comes to selecting environmentally improved products.

It’s all about the difference between ‘talk’ and ‘actions’... for both business and consumers. With the exception of energy star rated appliances (which retail in a tightly regulated and standardised environment), many manufacturers and brand owners feel that consumers don’t engage with environmental performance factors when it comes to buying ‘big ticket’ items such as a recyclable television produced using lead free solder or a computer monitor housed in plastics free of brominated flame retardants.

Personally, I don’t think the issue is that simplistic. If consumers knew more about the environmental impacts of their purchasing actions and this was supported with quality information about options, comparisons and benefits, we would see the market for environmentally improved products and services expand both in terms of size and sophistication.

Is there a perception that designing and manufacturing products that are environmentally friendly is too expensive?

The perception of eco-design resulting in increased costs is widespread, however it’s also used as a handy throw-away line by those with indifferent or negative views about environmental protection and ‘green’ products.

While additional environment related research and development is sometimes required to inform the design process, there are many ‘no-cost’ eco-design strategies and principles that can be integrated at a commercial level.

Attention to environmental factors is largely an ingredient of creative ingenuity, innovation and good design so why should environmentally sensitive design cost more than non-green design?

Much can be done to develop environmentally improved products without spending extra or employing environmental consultants. The reality is that eco-design is often part of the regulatory compliance process for many product categories around the world and thus an essential part of the commercialisation process.

Just as product safety and human factors have been blended into industrial design so too are environmental factors. It’s part of the suite of design considerations that designers and manufacturers engage with.

Are there specific sectors of manufacturing that have been more accepting of eco-design and others that are difficult to budge?

There’s no doubt that manufacturers of commercial furniture represent a very receptive and pro-active sector on eco-design including Steelcase and those previously mentioned. Electrical and electronic product manufacturers have also been progressing the issues.

However, stringent regulations on hazardous substances, energy efficiency and end-of-life take back and recycling have been critical drivers behind such advances.

The building products sector is a broad and diverse set of industries that has undertaken some good work but still falls short with much scope for eco-design improvement, especially where non-renewable resources dominate the production process, or where hazardous and toxic substances are still utilised in manufacturing processes or embodied in products themselves.

Can you give some examples of the range of companies currently working successfully with eco-design guidelines?

US based commercial furniture companies such as Herman Miller and Steelcase are major international players when it comes to eco-design guidelines and implementations.

The majority of new products emerging from these companies appear to be actively addressing environmental objectives. In the same sector, German company Wilkhahn pioneered some key eco-design outcomes in task chairs.

Bosch, Miele and Asko are noteworthy appliance manufacturers with a strong and continuing commitment to environmentally oriented product development.

Their achievements in energy and water efficiency as well as design for disassembly and recycling, continue to provide considerable evidence that supports the overall market success of such strategies.

Several companies in the electronics sector present a positive picture of their achievements including easily accessible on-line information and data about the environmental performance of specific products. HP, Philips, Sony, Sharp, Kyocera, Fuji Xerox and Panasonic, fall into this category.

Despite the not insignificant environmental problems associated with the massive proliferation of mobile phones and their rechargeable batteries, companies such as Nokia and Ericsson have made considerable advances both in terms of miniaturisation and materials efficiency, as well as the specification of more benign substances in batteries.

Outdoor recreation equipment companies such as Patagonia have invested considerable resources and effort in creating environmentally improved outdoor gear from technical mountain wear through to surfboards.

Regardless of how each of these companies describes their ‘eco-design’ or ‘DfE’ work, they continue to engage with a diverse range of product-oriented environmental issues.

Is government legislation (in Australia) the main driver in convincing manufacturers of the benefits of eco-design or are there other influences?

While some mandatory regulations and labeling requirements have and continue to push performance levels on energy and water efficiency, the rhetoric and enthusiasm from middle-level policy makers far exceeds any serious government commitment to legislation and regulation as a driver for eco-design and environmentally improved products.

At a Commonwealth level, continuing policies and programs on ozone depleting substances are having a positive impact, however there’s much scope for improvement. Standards and sector-based codes of practice also exist and provide some incentives for eco-design and environmental compliance, and these are likely to expand and increase over time.

Export oriented manufacturers who understand worldwide trends and regulatory requirements in key markets are probably ahead of the pack here in Australia.

For example, any Australian manufacturer wanting to distribute its electrical or electronic products in the European Union will know about the EU directives on waste electrical and electronic equipment, and the restriction of hazardous substances.

These directives will require all manufacturers, distributors and/or brand owners, to ensure their products comply with a range of design and end-of-life recycling requirements... issues which are key drivers and will determine whether or not a product can effectively and legally be supplied or distributed in the EU.

Legislation aside, the growing body of Australian (and overseas) knowledge and data about products, materials and their environmental impacts, represents a critical area of work that is influencing some manufacturing sectors and individual companies.

The growing awareness and adoption of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods and software that is accurately identifying, analysing and comparing impacts is driving product design and redesign work in packaging, furniture, building products and electronics.

In simple terms LCA is helping drive home a quantitative and science based message about product life cycle impacts, and where improvements can be made.

Is there a generational factor that influences the acceptance of design for the environment?

Absolutely. It’s so positive and encouraging to see young designers, design students and new graduates interested in and committed to eco-design and related topics.

The awareness and interest among design students and many progressive educators underscores a generational change that is starting to manifest itself in some of the more forward thinking design firms and design groups within manufacturing companies.

Seeing these design students and recent graduates in more senior decision-making roles in the coming years will provide a significant injection of knowledge and expertise into mainstream product development.

The number of eco-design related subjects, electives and studios seems to be growing all the time, especially at the under-graduate level. Industrial design programs at RMIT, Swinburne and UTS among numerous other Australian and New Zealand educational institutions seem to be offering their students more options on eco-design and sustainability.

EcoRecycle Victoria is also providing financial support toward the development of more focused teaching and learning modules for students and lecturers of industrial design.

These sorts of initiatives are not only helping mainstream design, they are also building the knowledge base among design educators, a critical part of the solution.

What about the international scene? Are there any exciting developments overseas that will have implications here?

There’s no doubt at all that eco-design, DfE and sustainable product development are developing a stronger and more sophisticated profile with wide-spread adoption among manufacturers.

Of course the awareness and uptake varies from country to country however there’s too much activity taking place among governments, companies, professional associations and universities, to dismiss it as a fad or short-lived fashion.

Legislation across the European Union, Japan, South East Asia, and parts of North America is seeking to address product related environmental issues ensuring eco-design is an even more important business and compliance tool.

There are noteworthy products with meaningful environmental features coming out of many parts of the world. However some countries seem to be more active than others.

I’ve always thought that the connection between design and environmental performance has been well understood by global companies headquartered in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

The USA has also been a strong adopter, especially in the IT and commercial furniture sectors. Their ‘hands-on’ commercialisation of eco-designed products is well documented, although often driven out of the need for regulatory compliance in off-shore markets.

Japan has been making significant headway in recent years, especially in consumer electronics. Considerable industry investment combined with regulation appears to be accelerating the process.

I feel that New Zealand is very well placed to further build its competitiveness through eco-design and attention to environmental factors.

Companies like Fisher and Paykel (major appliances), Formway Furniture, Methven (tapware), and Macpac (outdoor equipment and apparel) have all demonstrated they can design world beating products which take environment into account.

For a small country facing numerous challenges and barriers, the Kiwis are well focused on the importance of good design, sustainability and innovation as an essential strategic direction.

Australia’s place on the international spectrum of eco-design has come a long way over the last decade with many noteworthy achievements. And despite the relative slow pace, many of our designers, engineers and manufacturers have managed to deliver some great products in a fickle and unstable policy setting.

Australian product designers clearly have the know-how, ability and outlook. What they need to excel and progress (even further) is the right mix of policies, regulations and messages from government.

The day when Australian industry and environment policy includes robust environmental performance drivers, will be the time when designers can work productively and enthusiastically with clients. The value-adding benefits of eco-design will become acutely apparent – economically, ecologically and socially.

Modules for recycling

As businesses evolve in response to their market demands, so do their workspace requirements. For many, the desire to modify, reconfigure and update existing internal spaces has progressed into a frequent activity.

But along with the benefits of constant upgrades, there are some negative impacts, particularly to do with recycling and waste.

A new concept from Sprocket Design has been designed to meet the demands for flexibility but also has a focus on low-cost renewable materials.

Called Mood Module, the divider system consists of a kit of pre-stamped or die-cut interlocking pieces that can be assembled in any configuration of choice. As a DIY concept, the Mood Module makes self-assembly and installation uncomplicated.

The product’s advantage lies in its flexibility and lightweight construction as well as its space saving flat-pack storage option. The range of shapes and colours as well as its textural feel provides a striking alternative to office dividers, with an emphasis on financial and environmental costs.

Environmental attributes are embedded into the Mood Module as part of the total design process rather than isolated as ‘eco’ features, which drive or dominate the overall product.

The designers have also attempted to consider the concept as a product-system mindful of life cycle factors and the growing importance of product stewardship and shared product responsibility.

The core material proposed in the Mood Module is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and comes from Woven Image, in the form of a proprietary product called echopanel.

Woven Image is a major Australian supplier of fabrics for various upholstery and workstation screen applications. At 2400 grams per square metre, echopanel is about one third of the weight of MDF board or plasterboard in equivalent 12mm thickness.

By working with a single material such as echopanel and creating the shapes and patterns using low-cost die cut methods, the overall cost may be minimised. The use of echopanel as the core material for the system also challenges traditional textiles and textural surfaces.

It is an uncomplicated yet highly flexible product that has enabled the Sprocket team to explore smart material possibilities related to waste avoidance and dematerialisation.

With the Mood Module, the team suggests that a desirable and highly functional product can be environmentally sensitive without the need to respond with clichéd ideas and design aesthetics.

An important aspect of the concept has been the challenge and beauty of working with predominantly one material type. This lends itself to more effectively increasing the viability of recovering uncontaminated echopanel for recycling when the Mood Module reaches end of life.

Another significant element related to the concept is the broader life cycle management benefits of using a single material type, which is technically recyclable.

Woven Image has publicly stated that they will recover and recycle (uncontaminated) echopanel, helping maximise materials recovery and minimise unnecessary disposal to landfill. This represents an important product-system related benefit associated with the Mood Module concept.

Students learn eco lesson

What better place to discover the importance of caring for the environment than the school desk? With a long and distinguished history in providing for schools and students in Australia and New Zealand, Sebel Furniture has developed a range of products designed for schools and learning.

Described as a revolution in education desking, Sebel has created the Eco Desking System from one hundred per cent recyclable PET.

The company has drawn on more than thirty years of research into the furniture requirements of Australian and New Zealand students. Since producing its first school chair in 1951, Sebel has continued to look for innovative products.

Ten years ago designers created and manufactured Australasia’s first, one-piece injection moulded, ergonomically designed, stacking school chair, called the Postura. 

The Eco Desking range available in two styles, Eco Balance and Eco Logic, is unlike any traditional timber and laminated desk or desk surface. Not only can the ‘eco desks’ be recycled once they have reached the end of their natural life, the actual desk surface itself has been created using a material that has previously been recycled.

Made from recycled PET, the desks are an intelligent re-use of consumer packaging into a durable, long lasting product. They are made from the same recycled material used for soft drink and water bottles. These recyclable capabilities reduce the landfill pressure on the environment.

The new PET top is smooth, enabling students to write clearly and neatly using a single sheet of paper while the improved shape facilitates improved writing posture. It is a completely moulded one-piece unit.

PET is denser and harder than polypropylene providing a more robust piece of furniture, less susceptible to warpage, shrinkage and breakages.

Sebel is confident educational institutions will recognise the benefits of the system and the opportunity to contribute to environmental programs.

The company can take back end of life cycle Eco Balance and Eco Logic products and send them to recycling companies for re-use. And it can recycle forty-five of the 1.25 litre PET bottles to create a single Eco Balance. In this way, if a school purchases one hundred desks, they have effectively been a part of a recycling effort involving 4,500 of the 1.25L PET bottles.

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