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Designing for sustainability – part 2

01 November 2011

In the second of two short articles discussing 'designing sustainable products’, Carol Lo focuses on consumer perception versus the actual environmental sustainability of products

As market forces drive the success and failure of products on the market, true sustainable living can only be achieved if consumers have a good understanding of how sustainable different products are, and base their purchasing decisions on this understanding.

Although many consumers are now more discerning about the environmental sustainability of products they buy, most still make choices based only on personal perception of how sustainable a product may be. This is because people often need to make on-the-spot decisions to choose from a range of alternatives when they are shopping. Their perception of a product’s environmental sustainability can be heavily influenced by the media, the manufacturer’s marketing and even hearsay. This often leads to misinformed views of which product is more environmentally sustainable than its competitors. So despite the desire of the consumer to purchase the more sustainable option, they often end up not doing so.

Conversely, marketing professionals do their best to make products and accompanying marketing campaigns convincing to consumers, in order to attract more purchases. In this effort, it is all too easy to focus efforts on appealing to consumers’ perception of products’ environmental sustainability. As engineers and designers know, marketing requirements are a key driver for the design direction of a product. So for example, if a focus group of eco-aware consumers has shown an intuitive preference for brown cardboard packaging over a white printed board equivalent, marketing will tend to specify brown cardboard for the final product, even if scientific data shows white printed board to be more environmentally sustainable.

In this manner, manufacturers may often face dilemmas between perceived and actual sustainability when deciding how to implement a product, as the consumer perception that would help sell the product would detract from its actual eco-performance. Consequently, product designers may find themselves constrained by marketing requirements to opt for less eco-friendly materials and design concepts.

The solution to this is for both marketing and design to converge on a unified approach to sustainability; commercial and technical teams should come together to understand how marketing and design drivers for a product would affect its overall sustainability, and strike a balance together, in order to arrive at an appropriate product implementation that would be successful in the market while not sacrificing eco-performance unnecessarily.

On top of that, product labelling and marketing must aim to educate the consumer, by providing correct information to overcome common misconceptions. Appropriate marketing is key to the promotion of the true environmental sustainability of a product – dispelling myths would help gain consumer confidence, while building sustainability into a brand could put it ahead of its competitors in the market.

The challenge here is that sustainability is a multi-faceted concept; for example, just because an aluminium drinks can accounts for more ‘embodied energy’ (the energy required to extract raw materials, manufacture the can and recycle it) than polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, it may still be more sustainable overall in a country where plastic recycling is rare but aluminium is routinely collected and regenerated. So in this case, simply stating the comparison for embodied energy would not give a fair assessment of the product’s actual overall eco-performance. In 2009, a more significant fraction of the global supply of aluminium was recycled (up to 55 per cent) compared to that of PET (up to 22 per cent) [1].

Many large manufacturers, especially in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, now use dedicated software analysis tools to help them assess environmental sustainability of different product implementations. Although such analysis inevitably involves generic assumptions (such as whether the energy used in manufacturing is renewable or not), and can never be treated as absolutely accurate numerical data, this approach does allow material and design alternatives to be compared side-by-side.

Once a fair environmental sustainability assessment has been carried out, the design and marketing directions can be better harmonised to reach the same goal: to give consumers the product that satisfies their needs while minimising environmental impact. All the while, the business case for selling the product must be maintained – especially in hard economic times; not all consumers are prepared to pay more for a more eco-friendly product, so the cost competitiveness of a product is still important as ever.

All this seems extremely difficult to balance. But good product design can be the key to striking the right balance; for example, a dull material can be designed into a visually appealing shape; and the basic functions of a product can be implemented with less material or a more streamlined manufacturing process. These issues need to be considered early in a new product development, leveraging close collaboration between designers, engineers, marketing and manufacturing teams, ensuring that all relevant aspects are addressed appropriately.

After all the effort to optimise a product’s sustainability, it would be foolish not to make the most of marketing its environmental benefits to the consumer. But be careful – research shows that consumer perception of the sustainability of many leading brands is far from the reality [2]. At the extreme, it would seem irresponsible for marketers to lead consumers to believe that a product is more eco-friendly than it really is.

Undoubtedly, innovative design is an integral part of a company’s attempt at promoting correct consumer perception of product sustainability. Engineers and designers from my own company routinely work with the marketing and technical functions of large and small companies, helping clients break into the eco-aware consumers’ market, bringing good product design to the end user, accompanied by meaningful sustainability information. Together, we can work towards more truly sustainable living.

[1]. Ashby, Michael F., Materials and the Environment – eco-informed material choice, Elsevier Inc. 2009
[2]. Sustainability Leadership Report – measuring perception vs. reality, Brandlogic and CRD Analytics 2011

Carol Lo is with Cambridge Design Partnership

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