Design and Ecology

in: Katalog zum gleichnamigen Symposium des Design Center Singapore und des Goethe Instituts, Singapore 1993
The topic which brings us together today is the concern for our future, the future of the industrialised and the less industrialised world, and for the legacy which we will leave to our children.

In Europe, ecology is very high on the political agenda. But it is not the global problem of ecology as a whole which we wish to discuss. Our concern is the relationship between design and ecology.

Design has become one of the buzzwords of modern marketing and the designer is its promoter. This is a somewhat overambitious role for a profession which is still young, still struggling for recognition and which carries only little weight in the machinery of producing and marketing a product.
However, designers are credited with interdisciplinary thinking. They have always felt concern for the consumer, whom they wish to educate and whose behaviour they study. They have always been torn between the moral and cultural demands, and the demands of commercialism. Perhaps it is this very conflict which makes them and their thoughts so worth listening to.
Designers are a vain breed with very firm views on taste, design and the philosophy of design. They have been trained to apply their creativity to finding solutions to apparently unsolvable problems: to make products cheap yet attractive, to make complex technology easy to understand and operate, or to make common utilitarian products desirable.
So the crux of this symposium must be the question of how designers can contribute to resolving the ecological problems of our industrial society.

But before I go into this, I wish to set the stage with three scenarios:

Scenario 1
The media: Only bad news is good news
Scarcely a day goes by without the newspapers reporting some fresh environmental catastrophe: In Basel, chemicals have again leaked into the Rhine and killed thousands of fish; in Bitterfeld, a centre of the chemical industry in former East Germany which faces huge problems left by extensive pollution and contamination of the ground, the authorities have had to stop using certain water sources because the water is polluted with hydrocarbons and pesticides and the supply of drinking water to the local community is endangered; in Frankfurt, the population of an entire district has had to keep their windows closed to keep out a cloud of poisonous gas released by a chemical plant; or another plastics factory has burned to the ground releasing highly toxic dioxin gas into the atmosphere.
The good news is, by comparison, unexciting to the papers: new laws have led to a reduction in the pollution of waste water; many companies maintain emission levels well below statutory requirements; yet another company has switched over to re-usable packaging; a city council has created a wet biotope and the state government has announced the creation of a new nature reserve.

Politicians are under pressure to act
Under the pressure of public opinion, the major political parties have been forced to take a stand on environmental issues. The Green Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals wish to harness economic pressure to force industry and the consumer to act in a more environment-friendly way by introducing ecological charges and taxes. The Conservatives warn against overburdening industry and, as the party in power, emphasise the success they have already had with their existing environmental policies.
While the Greens, Liberals and Social Democrats cannot agree on whether domestic waste should be incinerated or whether it should be disposed of in some other way and although much criticism is levelled at the controversial recycling scheme for packaging run by German private industry, there is no other political subject which is discussed by the political parties in such a constructive and level-headed manner as the environment.
Nevertheless, the pioneers of environmental thinking regard the criteria employed for determining environmental policies as too short-sighted, as too much of a compromise between the business lobby on the one side and the environmental pressure groups on the other. The political grassroots wish to see visible signs of success and the politicians are eager to present each political move and act of legislation, be it ever so small, in the best possible vote-catching light.
Repeatedly there are calls for the use of ecological audits (Öko Bilanzen) or environmental impact assessments as the basis for political decision-making. However, in the opinion of the German Environmental Agency, these instruments are inadequate and not suitable for providing scientifically secure assessments of the true effect on the environment. It is doubtful whether the scientific community will ever be able to provide a totally reliable basis for political decision-making. The politicians therefore have no choice other than to make politically-based decisions.

It’s not just the politicians who are uncertain – it’s society as a whole
Against this background it is not surprising that the consumer is disoriented and has developed a nostalgic hankering for objects familiar to his grandparents, that he has taken up collecting antiques; that the younger generation is egoistically consuming – even sqandering – the heritage of its “economic miracle” parents and that it is ignoring the spirit of the 60s generation, the generation which fought for emancipation, personal freedom and social justice.
The existence, at the same time, of people who preach the total rejection of consumerism, who preach and, in some cases, practice, a new modesty, shows just how broad the present spectrum of thinking is in our society.

The response of industry is an aggressive one
Under the pressure of public opinion and under the harsh spotlight of the media, industry has been seeking to improve its image and win sympathy. In Europe, there is a tendency to reject technology, there is a fear towards new technologies and a distrust of industry and its objectives.
The response of the business world has been public relations exercises aimed at winning over the environmentally-conscious consumer. Today’s magazines and newspapers feature double-page spreads on the environmental achievements of leading corporations. The sectors most eager to present a Green face are the automotive industry and the chemical industry.

At the same time we are all aware that we also face very different problems: increasing unemployment, the migration of manufacturing activity to low-wage countries and the resultant loss of jobs, the threat to Germany’s strong manufacturing base, the high expectations and high costs associated with reunification, a phenomenon which demands sacrifice from the high-earning western employee and which is forcing companies to make unpopular decisions.
The current business climate is dominated by rationalisation, production plant closures, capital investment, mergers, greater competition and the search for new markets.
This has led to a more aggressive tone in the relations between individual companies and to the abandonment of the long established principle of fair play in western industrial society. When your back is against the wall, attack often seems to be the best form of defence:
The big names of the automotive industry are taking their gloves off: Their currently vocabulary is that of war, they talk of the challenge (from Japan), of attack, of the conquest of markets, of strategies designed to drive the opposition off the battlefield and of enslaving suppliers.
The aggressive behaviour of German industry is accompanied and perhaps encouraged by a long list of popular books written in a similarly warrior-like vein.

Scenario 2:
The facts and figures overlooked in the increasingly emotional nature of current debate
In Germany, the manufacture of goods in the field of environmental engineering accounts for sales in the region of DM 24 billion per year (source: Dieter Spöri, Minister of Economic Affairs of the State of Baden-Württemberg, 1993). Environmental engineering has become a major growth industry and has received a correspondingly high degree of attention from politicians. The World Watch Institute has forecast sales of $ 300 million for environmental products and services by the year 2000 (forecast made in January 1993). In Germany, statistics suggest a turnover in this field of around a billion Deutsche Marks and of an industry employing up to 800,000 by the year 2000.
30 per cent of inventions related to environmental technology filed at the German Patent Office are from domestic German sources, the majority of these coming from the State of Baden-Württemberg (22 per cent come from the USA and 12 per cent from Japan). This technological lead needs to be strengthened by fundamental and applied research. However, the role of designers, their function and their potential contribution with regard to the introduction and establishment of eco-friendly products, has yet to be recognised in terms of economic and industrial policy.

In Germany, there are a number of business associations concerned with ecologically-compatible products and production methods. The most well-known of these groups is B.A.U.M., the German Working Group for Environmentally Conscious Management. This group sees itself as an initiative born and bred within the business community. It has 250 members and is committed to the promotion of environmentally-aware management.

Increasingly, annual company reports emphasise ecological achievements. The providers of investment capital want to be informed on the ecological risks of their clients and categorise their credit-worthiness accordingly. It would seem that capital rewards ecologically-conscious management not so much because of a sense of responsibility or morality, but simply because of less risks.

Corporate sponsoring has become a modern form of patronage and ecological sponsoring has become as important as social, cultural or sports-related sponsoring because it touches the emotions of the consumer. Surveys of the general public’s main concerns show that the environment is second only to unemployment.
German industry expects to see long-lasting impetus generated in this field by former East Germany, by the single European market and by developments in Eastern Europe.

However, these positive signs should not distract our attention from an unfortunate attitude to be found in Germany (and in many other European countries too): Unpleasant experiences in the past have engendered a fear and antipathy towards technology. The spectre of an apocalypse haunts us. Our concern for the environment causes us to eye each new technology with scepticism. We are scared of the future.

The intellectual elite actively criticises our culture and our civilisation, but does little to overcome it or even help develop new models for a post-industrial society. But, as has been stated by such figures as Konrad Seitz, a member of the team of advisors to Genscher, former Federal Foreign Minister and now ambassador in Rome, or Ernst Ulrich Weizsäcker, Director of the Institute for European Environmental Technology, these new models are essential to creating the atmosphere in which everybody can identify hinself with socially-acceptable objectives, in which industry has a sense of direction and in which there is a willingness to invest capital.
To overcome our present phase of disorientation is by many considered the most pressing task. To have no goals is fatal.

Let me now take a look through the magnifying glass, so to speak, at this wide variety of views of society, the ideologies which determine peoples’ actions and shape their political and economic behaviour.

Scenario 3
First of all, let us take the fundamentalists. May be Germany is an ideal breeding ground for fundamentalists. They argue that the root of ecological evil lies in industrialisation and in capitalism as its driving force, in the quasi-monopolies held by large multinationals and the power of the banks. They divide up society into power-hungry capital and the victimized citizen who must defend himself by political means. Many fundamentalists even regard an ecological catastrophe as the prerequisite to creating the change in attitudes needed to build up a new, ecologically-oriented society. However, what form this society should take, is a question which remains unanswered. Their obsession with finding strategies to bring down capitalism diverts their energies from developing new utopia.
Then we have the appellants, people who call for reason and who believe in the ability of people to see what is needed and to act accordingly. They can frequently be found in political circles and do no harm in appealing for “environment-friendly industrial and economic policy” and for the “greening of the free market economy”. These people wish, as the Prime Minister of the State of Baden-Württemberg, Erwin Teufel put it, to combine “affluence and a secure welfare state with the protection of creation”. They demand greater creativity as the way of achieving it. Therein, according to their thinking, lies the solution to our woes.
Then we have the introverts who wish to have nothing to do with the big world of politics and who see the problem in terms of individual behaviour. In their eyes, the individual must act in an ecologically-aware manner. They eat a healthy diet, avoid cigarettes and throw nothing away. These people have often emerged from the Protestant movement, their behaviour is tinged with puritanism and occasionally it is even possible to detect traces of Zen Buddhism. Their concept of nature is a romantic one. Nature is something intact and naturalness means a return to the good old days. Industrial activity is damaging and any interference with the natural world is to be shunned. They believe that by setting an example, the individual can automatically influence politics and economics. Many practice a form of passive resistance by imposing a personal, tacit boycott on the world of consumer goods. They pursue a strategy of small, individual steps which they hope will lead to bigger ones.
The cynics, by contrast, have already given up on the world and argue that we should simply enjoy it while it lasts and get the most possible pleasure from it. Some post-modern trends in architecture and design also belong in this ideological camp. Slogans such as “form follows fun” or concepts such as “hedonism”or “pleasure” have shocked the purists and introverts and are in stark contrast to the puritans and fundamentals.
The consciousness – raisers are serious about their intentions and mostly optimistic. They recognise that our image of the environment is a “construction within our heads which is re-created by every new generation” as Lucius Burkhardt put it. They also claim that our concept of the environment is very much determined by aesthetics and they therefore ascribe to the designer a significant role in shaping our perception of it. They believe that ecological progress can only be achieved through changing one’s lifestyle and behaviour in accordance with the self-regulating forces of nature.
The eco – economists are still rare, but growing in number, and include many young entrepreneurs. They feel that the protection of the environment must be an essential part of economic policy and business activity. They believe that it is only because the costs of environmental damage do not appear on the balance sheet, that companies are tempted to act in a destructive manner. They wish to change the pattern of taxation by introducing higher environmental taxes and lower income and corporation taxes in the belief that this would lead to greater commitment to the environment within industry and would generate more jobs. They wish to see the government introduce ecological taxes, something which, up till now, only the Green Party has been calling for. If this doesn’t happen the ecological economists believe that industry will one day face “Gigantic reactivation costs” as Max Schön described them.
The eco – technologists do not want to see end-of-pipe solutions but preventative environmental measures integrated within an ecologically-oriented market economy. Integrated environmental protection is defined as ensuring that a product and its manufacture avoid wasting resources and damaging the environment. They see the solution in terms of technological innovation: i.e. substitution of certain materials by others, lower consumption of materials and energy, lower emissions and recycling-friendly design. They believe that new technology would enable us to stabilise the earth’s ecosystem without having to “do without”. They believe that ecological salvation can only be achieved with and through industry. They also think that their model has a realistic chance of being adopted by industry, the political leadership and consumers at the same time.
The utility – realists base their concept on the utilitarian benefit of a product to the consumer. They wish to convince consumers that they gain greater benefit and greater value for money by longer, joint and more intensive use of a product. In other words, they think it is possible to combine greater quality of life with environment-friendly behaviour. They wish to convince the consumer that his aim should not be the possession but the use of products and they wish to convince businesses that their aim should not be the sale of products but the sale of product use and that companies can make just as much money that way. They promote leasing and sharing concepts which encourage industry to develop durable products since a product with double the service life halves the amount of resources consumed. The objection that products become technically out-of-date is countered by the argument that products should be possible to upgrade and suitable for retrofitting.

By presenting this exaggerated picture of mindsets in Germany I hope I have helped you to structure and put into context the following thoughts:

1.1 Technological innovation
Environmental technology has emerged as a major new industrial sector. The aim is to reduce the burden upon the environment by means of technology. This sector is concerned with protecting the quality of air, water and soil and with the disposal of waste, etc. This technology is intended to prevent pollution, to soften its impact and to repair the damage done. It requires extensive research and considerable capital investment, it involves a great deal of process engineering but little product design in the classic sense.
The environmental damage encountered in former East Germany will keep a large number of companies busy for many years to come. There will be worldwide demand for the expertise acquired by German industry in this way.

Environmental technology includes environment-friendly energy generation, solar technology and photovoltaic systems

1.2 Saving energy and materials
The need to achieve maximum output from minimum input is as old as human technology itself. The tools for achieving this are scientific work and invention, and the motivation the resultant economic benefit. Functionalism also designed according to economic principles and regarded optimised products as elegant.
In the ecological debate, a further aspect must be considered. Products consuming few raw materials and saving energy can be rewarded by tax concessions in the ecological society and can achieve greater kudos. That is to say, they can be advertised as environment-friendly and gain customer approval. In some cases, they may even become status symbols.

1.3 Recycling-friendly design
Recycling-friendly products are ones which can be easily broken down into their component parts and materials. These can then be returned to the raw materials cycle. This requires the statutory coding of components and materials, which in turn requires action by the political leadership. It should be possible to easily separate materials which have been combined and it would be desirable to reduce in number the variety of materials used. Composite materials present problems.

1.4 Component exchange
The principle of component exchange is based on the realisation that in sophisticated products there are certain components which are subject to wear and tear or which can quickly become out-of-date. By enabling such parts to be replaced it is possible to prevent the entire product becoming obsolete and to extend its effective service life.

1.5 Material substitution
The aim of material substitution is to replace pollutant or damaging materials with more environmentally compatible alternatives: to replace toxic materials with non-toxic ones, energy-wasting materials with energy-saving ones, difficult-to-recycle materials with easy-to-recycle ones, exotic materials with local ones.

2.1 Integrated solutions
Few ecological problems can be solved by the product alone. Integrated system solutions are aimed at providing a service and fulfilling needs rather than supplying a product. In other words, the focus is not on the milk bottle but on supplying milk, not on the lamp, but on providing light, not on the car, but ensuring mobility.
Integrated system solutions must take account of the entire cycle of production, distribution, use and recycling; i.e the cradle-to-grave life of a product or service. You could call it the entire metabolism of our civilisation.

2.2 Re-use
Re-use means utilising a product more than once and therefore extending its effective service life. This category includes, for instance, all re-usable packaging.

2.3 Alternative use
Alternative use means utilising a product or parts of a product in a new context, e.g. a manufacturing plant considered out-of-date can continue to be used in the Third World.

2.4 Intensive use
Intensive use means joint rather than individual use. This category includes sharing and leasing concepts. The ecological benefit is that common utilisation means fewer products are required.

2.5 Software replacing hardware
Modern communication can be an effective means of saving time, preserving natural resources and reducing pollution. The screen image cannot satisfy all communication requirements but it is often perfectly adequate. Examples include the video conference and the videophone.
Despite being widely predicted, the paperless office never came about – and that despite the fact that computer memory has grown ever more compact and powerful and information processing has become ever faster and ever more universal. With the help of modern information technology, it is today possible to perform a remarkable range of activities from an office the size of a desk. The underlying idea is to create decentral workstations for service-related, organisational and informational tasks.

The achievements of microelectronics have yet to be fully exploited, particularly with regard to their ecological potential. Fear of technology, which represents a fear of the future, is preventing us from moving on, even if, consciously or unconsciously, we are on the steep, one-way road from “the material culture to the immaterial culture”, as Vilem Flusser put it. The development of workable, future-oriented and ecologically compatible concepts, such as those made possible by microelectronics, is only just beginning.

3.1 More local production and consumption
The worldwide availability of goods has led to an explosion in demand. Its motto is “anything, anytime, anywhere”.
Our needs are met by a huge amount of transport. We export BMWs to Milan, from where we import Alfa Romeos, we send kitchens to Japan, and bring back cameras and cars. The list is endless. A frank assessment, a balance sheet of the burden placed upon the environment by this volume of transport would be horrifying.

Finding a way to reconcile our desire for variety, which we regard as contributing to the quality of our lives, with our responsibility to the environment, which is equally important to us, represents a social, economic but also an aesthetic problem.
In the liberal world economy, this is a taboo subject which has hardly been touched upon.

3.2 More work-intensive instead capital-intensive production
Today, any company which chooses work-intensive rather than capital-intensive production methods is systematically punished because contributions to the welfare state are linked to wages. That is the view expressed by a young German entrepreneur.
The alternative would be to link such contributions to the total income which a company generates. This would re-open opportunities for the manufacture of work-intensive products in industrialised countries. It would create jobs and people would be able to participate in the affluent society through their own work rather than through handouts from the welfare state.
However, this would require a completely new legal framework i. e. a eco – tax.

The implications for product design have not been studied yet. Perhaps it would mean the re-emergence of hand-made products, where each one is a unique item, in contrast to the stereotype mass product. However, this would probably only be possible to a limited extent.
In post-modern design there are already moves toward artistic and hand-made items replacing the mass product. But in reality, these concepts are just as unsuitable as the concepts of pre – industrial times.

4.1 Quality-led not quantity-led product diversity
As consumers, we are accustomed to choosing from a large variety of products. We regard this diversity as a quality because we feel it enables us to better express our individuality and achieve self-realisation.

The designers, in particular, have contributed to this proliferation of products. And modern marketing continues to produce even more subtle ways of product differentiation. Stepping up product variety is a basic tenet of modern marketing. A company which has no “new” products to launch at the next trade fair is of no interest to the buyer.
However, the consumer finds it increasingly difficult to find his way through the jungle of consumerism. And what is more, ecological consumer behaviour requires an informed and environmentally-aware shopper.

Product diversification is expensive and ecologically doubtful. The reasons are obvious: ever smaller production runs, high tooling and storage costs, greater logistics, greater investment in customer information and advertising.
A leaner range of products need not be a loss, instead it could be an opportunity for improvement: in fact, concentration on essential standards, greater clarity and understanding, better product information and a form of marketing which would openly stand by this strategy all represent new and “marketable” arguments to the environmentally-conscious consumer.

4.2 Reducing aesthetic ageing
Aesthetic ageing is a form of “wear and tear” that is related not to the function of a product but to its appearance.

We throw away most of our clothes simply because they are no longer fashionable even though they continue to perform their function perfectly well. Fashion is a phenomenon of human society which consumes huge resources, fuels the manufacturing machine and, admittedly, creates many jobs. And what we already do with clothes we are increasingly doing with other things as well: with cars, furniture, sports equipment and many other products.

The trend towards an ever greater element of fashion in many areas of life has considerable ecological consequences.

One potential solution could be a design strategy aimed at creating classic and long-lasting products which are not subject to the rapid ageing process of fashion. Products which we could treat rather like “family heirlooms” because they are at the top of technological development, because they are useful and well designed: products which we can feel good about.

4.3 The product as eco-message
Products send out a message. Their appearance and value is registered in a process of active perception. Products which are useful and pleasing are perceived positively and become qualities which decide upon our affection. Products therefore have a meaning which goes beyond their function.

Products can provoke, engender enthusiasm, stimulate or cause us to contemplate. In the shop window, they show their aesthetic side; in actual use, they demonstrate their real benefit. When their practical usefulness fails to match up to their appearance we get annoyed.

Designers can raise consciousness through the appearance of a product: to make desirable what is ecological sensible, or to put it in design terms: to make product semantics serve ecology.

Comments are closed.