Global companies as well as entrepreneurial small to medium enterprises or SMEs are well advanced towards the creation and commercialisation of materials that are greener, cleaner and technically impressive. 

Whether it’s high performance composites produced through energy efficient processes, low toxic finishes and coatings, metals and plastics featuring high levels of post-consumer recycled content, timbers and engineered wood products sourced from sustainable plantations, or biodegradable polymers, the level of activity is intense, and the demand from specifiers appears to be growing.

It is also fair to say that ‘eco’ materials are being approached with a higher degree of rigour when being assessed and compared. Once upon a time it was enough for manufacturers or suppliers to make strong and seductive environmental claims without any independent environmental verification or testing.

We’re all familiar with logos, symbols and clichés that reference dolphins, leaves, trees and other nature-based symbols, as a way of demonstrating or marketing environmental credentials.

For good reason, this superficial imagery is diminishing. Third-party labels, government regulated ratings, as well as sceptical consumers have helped generate a more robust and honest approach to developing environmentally improved materials and products.

This shift has also helped improve the overall image of eco-materials from being inferior, aesthetically primitive and functionally problematic, to a situation where environmental performance is successfully integrated with other critical requirements including functional performance, quality, cost, reliability, aesthetics, service and support... and of course market appeal.

While mavericks still exist, the current state of materials science, government interest, industry innovation and consumer cynicism, is facilitating a more environmentally transparent state of affairs.

So while the focus on eco-materials appears to be improving, some basic definitions and objectives still remain under-developed and poorly advocated. For example what exactly is green material? How do we know if a material is environmentally improved, preferable or better than a competitor?

Also, might there be valid trade-offs when comparing materials i.e. an energy intensive material that is more durable and easier to maintain compared with a plastic with post-consumer recycled content that has a lower initial cost and reduced life span.

In the absence of having an in-house materials scientist or applied chemist, designers and design firms can adopt a higher-level aim when it comes to selecting and comparing materials that might have noteworthy environmental characteristics.

One of the most critical factors in considering the environmental impacts of any material is the need to move beyond the material itself and more clearly understand its context and application.

This requires looking upstream and downstream of where the designer or specifier commences his or her own interaction with a material. A life cycle approach that is holistic can help avoid considering materials in isolation of their source, processing, application, maintenance, reuse, recycling and disposal.

Too often the environmental impact of materials is assessed in isolation of their total context with simplistic comparisons being made about material ‘X’ being greener than material ‘Y’. While such claims can be true in some instances, there is a range of other scenarios where the reverse can be just as true depending on the specific application of a material.

Simplistic generalisations about materials and their environmental performance can often serve to perpetuate myths and folklore rather than inform low impact materials selection.

Whether it’s called life cycle thinking, cradle to grave, or more recently, ‘cradle to cradle’, the essential aim revolves around product systems and the opportunity to use design to ‘lock-in’ positive environmental qualities while simultaneously ‘locking-out’ undesirable environmental attributes.

In other words, a more progressive ecodesign approach will seek to eliminate and avoid possible impacts from the outset, whereas a conventional view of greener products will focus on single dimensions such as incremental water and energy efficiency improvements, limited recycled content or recyclability.

The greatest opportunities to create environmentally improved products is to in fact ‘de-materialise’ – to consume dramatically fewer materials, while still ensuring maximum efficiency and effectiveness, as well as minimum toxicity.

Radical improvements in the widespread recovery, reuse and/or recycling of products, and the constituent materials at end-of-life is also paramount. Implemented concurrently, this resource efficiency view of products and services enables design and life cycle thinking to intervene where it counts most i.e. at the inception phase when functionality, initial concepts, production and markets are first considered.

A life cycle approach will also get producers and designers thinking more proactively about consumers and consumption, not just markets and throughput. Although highly challenging, questions of need versus want, and supply versus demand, can also be addressed in a more sophisticated way.

The challenge is not so much in specifying wonderful eco-materials alone, but also about how we can pursue the sustainable application of materials and products more broadly.

It’s very much about smart and creative implementation whereby bigger picture thinking that sometimes seems unattainable, is operationalised through very practical ‘real-world’ innovation.

In product terms, maybe we’re slightly off-track when we focus too closely on recycled content as opposed to durability, high strength to weight ratios or upgradability.

A recyclable small appliance or mobile phone that is essentially a semi-disposable object, could be environmentally improved if its core was designed for extended product life, while other features and functions were more modular and updateable, thus reducing the risk of premature obsolescence through dated functionality.

Using fewer materials more efficiently, and keeping them in use longer, has the benefit of deferring them from disposal and landfill for longer.

The flow of materials (raw and processed) through our economy and lifestyles remains a significant phenomenon, and also underlies most of our environmental dilemmas, so our definitions of eco-materials and indeed eco-design need to reflect the scale of the problem with a higher degree of sophistication.

At a time when stylised consumption for its own sake appears to dominate the market place, the challenge to create low-impact products that make sense in a sustainable future seems incredibly complicated yet not impossible.

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