These topics have grown increasingly important in the realm of design and new product development in recent years, but are they really worth pursuing?
We all want a healthy planet to leave to our children, and that almost certainly means looking differently at how we utilize the world’s resources. So, we come up with phrases like “green products” and mandates like “our company must have sustainable products”, but what does that really mean? And, can it really impact the health of the planet?
Consider this. All products consume energy to be produced, and delivered to market. So, even that bamboo chair has a carbon footprint to it, and it’s going to take a good bit of energy (and possibly water resources) to recapture the plastic or aluminum used to package your favorite beverages. There is more to it than just simple material choice alone; how long the product will endure needs to be balanced against how long the product should endure.
Let’s consider material selection and product life. With a few exceptions, materials in and of themselves are neither sustainable nor not sustainable. There aren’t evil materials and good materials; materials are just materials. But, the nature of the products we develop determines whether we are using the materials in a sustainable way or not. It’s actually a fantastic thing that some plastics last a thousand years, so long as we don’t turn them into products that are meant to be thrown away after a few minutes. Likewise, it’s a horrible idea to make a product out of a material that biodegrades in twelve months, if the product is something that the user would want to keep for a long time – then they have to buy the product over and over again, which has a worse environmental impact than just buying a durable plastic one to start with.
So, are there sustainable materials? No. Almost every material is sustainable or not sustainable based on how we utilize it.
(caveat: There are, of course, a few materials that may have extreme environmental hazards associated with their production such as Polytetrafluoroethylene, and extreme care should be used in their production.)