So much about the sustainability of a product rests on its design. Product designers have long understood how their work impacts the sustainability of the final product. Designers can create a lighter and therefore more energy efficient item; shape packages differently so more can be shipped; and streamline materials so that at the end of an object’s lifetime it can be recycled or reprocessed more easily.
Now businesses are on this bandwagon and endlessly tout their “innovation” . . . as if innovation came from a vacuum the past year and we never had new exciting changes that led us to where we are now. But in fairness, this constant drumbeat of “innovation” has been a great trend–and has kept plenty of public relations and communications professionals employed telling us about their clients’ innovations.
One of the joys of being a sustainability writer is covering the great ideas that make you slap your forehead and think, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” True, I’m only the smartest in the room when I’m alone. But anyway, say goodbye to the frumpy burlap hemp sacks of yesterday and the overpriced aisles of gadgets at Whole Foods: high tech, elegant sustainable design is here to stay, and is leading to products that are more responsible, cooler and yes, even cheaper.
So as we countdown to the new year, here are some of the top 10 moments in sustainable design–in alphabetical order:
Autodesk: The 30-year-old design software firm has had its imprint on countless buildings and products. Two new products, Simulation360 and FormIt, will allow inventors, architects and designers to test and model their creations on the cloud and via mobile technologies.
Bob’s of Brazil: Imagine you are at your local McDonald’s biting into a seitan-based Big Mac, with that burger wrapped in edible rice paper. We know, of course, that will never happen, but a seasonal vegan can dream, can’t he? Earlier this year Bob’s, a Brazilian fast food company, briefly wrapped its (unappealing looking) burgers in rice paper. Most likely fast food companies will not bite on this idea because they know the wrapper would taste better than the product.
Ford Motor: The automaker has experimented with new materials the past few years, from soy to shredded currency. By tweaking a little piece of window trim, Ford was able to lower that part’s price, reduce emissions and save fuel. Sometimes the little things add up to big savings.
IKEA: Here is some $19.99 sustainable design fun: an LED desk lamp that runs on solar and looks sharp as well. The only catch: you have to remove the solar cell and leave it out for 12 hours for the first charge–a dubious prospect in some neighborhoods and climates. Oh, and we will not ask where the IKEA Sunnan (pictured above right) is manufactured. But the yellow one looks chic on my John Keal end table.
Interface: One year after Ray Anderson passed away, the carpet tile pioneer still challenges the building industry to be more environmentally responsible. Some of the company’s latest products point to biophilia. In English, biophilic design is the belief in that the built environment can enhance humans’ physical and spiritual connections to nature. I was too cheap to buy the biophila line for my own place, but as I gaze at the 50 percent post-consumer recycled material tiles in my living room, I am a true believer anyway.
Izhar Gafni and the $20 cardboard bicycle: Could a a bike made out of recycled cardboard change the world? Izhar Gafni, an Israeli engineer whose career focused on the design of automated mass-production lines, may have created a two-wheeled technology disruptor. Imagine the new businesses that could start in some of the world’s poorest regions if transport becomes this cheap. Plus the opportunities for manufacturing around the globe instead of outsourcing to the cheapest markets are exciting prospects as well. The upshot is I want one.
Method: If all companies were as fun and irreverent as Method this would be a more enjoyable, and sustainable world. Yes, Method Home released a cool line of perty Orla Kiely-designed soaps. Even more significant, however, is that the goofy San Francisco-based cleaning products firm started to turn ocean trash into packaging. An epic win.
Nike: One of the best corporate social responsibility reporters at this moment, Nike is pushing boundaries with its sustainability portal. Best feature: Nike is teaching the layperson about sustainable design and new materials by challenging consumers to create virtually their own apparel and shoes. By demonstrating the plusses and minuses of various products, Nike melds together sustainability and innovation and brings them alive.
PulpWorks: What is more infuriating: the amount of waste and toxins that PVC leaves in its nasty wake, or the fact that such packaging is so difficult and annoying to open it can cause an aneurysm? PulpWorks could have the answer: packaging formed out of recycled newspapers.
PUMA: All right, so it is a little more complicated than pitching your shoes in the backyard with the eggshells and orange peels, but PUMA will soon release a line of biodegradable clothing and shoes. Even if it means the consumer has to bring the old products to the store for eventual shredding and disposal–I mean composting–this is still an impressive step.
Oscar Niemeyer: The father of Brasília and modern Brazilian architecture passed away 10 days before his 105th birthday. Love or hate his architecture and politics (he was a dedicated Communist though he sure didn’t live like one), his imprint on architecture and design in Brazil and beyond will last for generations. And when you have Converse carry your own personalized line of sneakers at the ripe young age of 104, you ooze awesomeness. Indoctrination on sneakers at any age? Sweet. Oscar Niemeyer was designing cities before many of our grandparents were born: talk about sustainable design!
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
Image credits: Leon Kaye