Some industry sectors are moving forward noticeably, as a result of business foresight and the need to stay competitive. A healthy dose of environmental regulation mandated by frustrated governments is also a pivotal reason for change in some regions and countries, especially the European Union, Japan and some US states.

So where do design and product development fit in this changing landscape? This varies, depending on the sector, jurisdiction and product category, but in essence, design has the unmatched potential to secure a position at the head of the table.

There is a growing acknowledgement, among more thoughtful policy makers, that design can eliminate or significantly reduce environmental problems before they even have the chance to surface. The simple maxim of ‘prevention is better than cure’ has direct relevance when it comes to how design can play a positive role in achieving a sustainable future.

Probably the most significant intervention on the sustainable-design advocacy spectrum in Australia has been the enthusiastic engagement of the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), and in particular the Victorian branch.

A new collaboration – the Design for Sustainability (DfS) Partnership – was formed in 2005, with support, encouragement and parcels of funding from Sustainability Victoria.

The explicit focus of this relatively new network of stakeholders has been to build professional capacity and enthusiasm among design practitioners and their clients. The DfS Partnership is about creating the infrastructure to accelerate DfS knowledge transfer.

Comprising the DIA, Sustainability Victoria, Product Ecology and the Centre for Design at RMIT University, the DfS Partnership is helping to mainstream the application and benefits of DfS in a commercial context.

The partnership acknowledges that there is much to do in making DfS an everyday reality in Australian industry and among design consulting firms. The aim is to work closely with key stakeholders and develop designer-friendly tools that have meaning. The partnership encourages business to take practical action, as opposed to engaging in free-flowing rhetoric on what could be.

Over the last two years the DfS Partnership has managed to move forward on several initiatives, each driven by an individual partnership organisation but coordinated by the network as a whole. This collaborative approach to DfS advocacy, while not yet working to its full potential, is nonetheless succeeding in ways that previous programs and measures have not.

From professional-development workshops and themed forums, through to simple designer-friendly guides and industry outreach, the DfS Partnership is gaining momentum, credibility and exposure. Its high-profile presence at designEX 2007 in Melbourne demonstrated its willingness and enthusiasm to target those at the core of the design process.

Over the last two years, the DfS Partnership has initiated and/or implemented the following activities:

HeadStart professional development and training

Full-day professional development workshops focused on DfS theory and practice. Modifying the HeadStart sessions to enable on-site training at design firms and manufacturing facilities is a focus for 2007/08. Coordinated by RMIT Centre for Design.

Design for Sustainability QuickStarts

An ongoing series of simple guidance documents on specific DfS themes. Topics covered to date include DfS briefing basics, jargon and concepts, materials, regulations, commercial furniture, textiles and electronics. Upcoming QuickStarts for 2007/08 will cover water conservation and mobility/transport.  Coordinated by Product Ecology.

DIA industry liaison officer (DfS)

Appointment of a part-time industry liaison officer with funding from Sustainability Victoria to specifically support DfS-related advocacy within the DIA and with relevant external stakeholders. Coordinated by the DIA.

Rapid Assessment Tool (RAT) for DfS

A significant new initiative focused on developing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) support tool. The prototype RAT has commenced its life as a paper-based tool and is currently being transformed into online tool specifically for use by Australian designers, engineers and product developers. Coordinated by RMIT Centre for Design.

DfS criteria for awards

As part of its ongoing advocacy approach, Sustainability Victoria has been working closely with Standards Australia to incorporate basic DfS criteria into the Australian Design Awards. Coordinated by Sustainability Victoria.

In many ways, the DfS Partnership is about highlighting the connection between design quality and sustainability. The definition of good design is a changing concept, mindful of new materials, innovative production methods, diverse consumer needs and rapid globalisation.

There is an unmatched opportunity to demonstrate how design can effectively create low-impact products that are ecologically sensitive, socially necessary and commercially shrewd.

The role of the Victorian Government in helping facilitate the partnership has been vital and productive. Diana Gibson, manager of sustainable products and services at Sustainability Victoria, has assembled a small team of staff who understand product design and the value of working more closely with designers, researchers and industry.

“Ensuring that Design for Sustainability is supported through improved knowledge, training and decision support tools is absolutely critical,” says Gibson. “Sustainability Victoria believes that the DfS Partnership is an essential element in advancing the relevance of environmentally oriented product design while also highlighting its commercial value.”

From an applied-research perspective, RMIT’s Centre for Design continues to play a strong role in creating the LCA-based tools (eg, RAT) necessary to underpin DfS with defendable data and methodologies.

“The need to shift from superficial eco-speak to hands-on, commercially relevant DfS is significantly overdue in Australia,” says Dr Ralph Horne, director of the Centre for Design.

“Above all we need eco-design support tools that are designer-friendly and rigorous in their use of LCA data inputs. There’s so much more to commercially successful eco-design than specifying the use of recycled content or design for recycling, and this is where the RAT initiative makes so much sense.”

Probably the most important shift has come from the professional association itself. Whereas the DIA was absent from discussions and activities on eco-design in the 90s, in recent years it has shown a new attitude that recognises the overall benefits – professional, commercial and environmental – of DfS.

“An informed environmental understanding can only serve to strengthen standards within the design community,” says Paul Charlwood, president of the Victorian Branch of the DIA. “Furthermore, there is a clear responsibility for industrial designers to show their clients how DfS can be achieved without all the historical baggage often associated with more inferior approaches.”

Susd is a new approach and brand that acknowledges the link between good design, innovation and sustainability.

Developed by branding strategist Tava Darakamaran-Alkan, the new identity is aimed at mainstreaming the value of DfS and eco-improved products across a range of sectors.

“Susd is a way of thinking for designers, and a way of life for consumers,” says Darakamaran-Alkan. “The emphasis is on maximising design quality while leaving the lightest footprint.”

Susd demonstrates that Australian designers and manufacturers can deliver significant sustainability benefits while also creating brilliant products for an enlightened and environmentally smart consumer.

Susd is an exciting and stimulating example of what can be achieved when products are designed with attention to environmental performance, core functionality, consumer desire and affordability.

From innovative water-conservation technologies through to highly flexible monitor arms, workstations and chairs, the range and diversity of eco-improved products provides optimism and choices that can help consumers achieve a sustainable future.

It seems that society is moving beyond viewing concern for the environment as a short-term fad. The need for effective and widespread solutions to help deliver a sustainable future has never been more apparent.

Indeed, the shift to a more appealing and effective role for DfS and eco-improved products is accelerating and characterised by endless opportunities, especially for creative designers and committed manufacturers.

The DfS Partnership signals a new and influential phase in making the shift.

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