Going “green” means consumers must consider the big picture. But so should the product designers.
Today I want to applaud Leyla Acaroglu for successfully communicating what we constantly attempt to convey both through this blog and through establishing a brand like Lux & Eco; and it’s a simple message. In her TedTalk (shown below), Leyla states, “everything at some point came from nature. It’s how you use those materials that dictates their impact.” She then goes on to use the examples of paper vs. plastic, fuel efficient cars, and energy saving home appliances to illustrate how consumers make decisions based on “environmental folklore.” While, yes, it is better to choose these options over more conventional ones (the choice, by the way, is still paper) most consumers don’t consider the entire life cycle of a product – green or not – , especially the end of that cycle. Consumers should be making choices because they understand why one product is “greener” than another, not because they’ve been told what’s green what’s not.
Leyla brings up the evolution of refrigerators. She jokes that, since the 50’s, not much has changed in terms of it being a big cold box. Its functionality might be the same, but what has shifted is its decorative status. “French doors,” “side-by-side,” “counter depth,” “bottom freezer” – and always stainless steel – these are just a few of the options we are presented with if we want to adjust our fridges to match the ambiance of our custom-made kitchens. Excessive? The worst, though, is the evolution in fridge size. Consumers will always see bigger as better. To have the widest fridge symbolizes the ability to afford the most food. And nothing’s more embarrassing than an empty fridge, right? So we buy more food, even though our capacity to eat more food hasn’t increased with more fridge space. The new models don’t work harder or better than the old ones, so the food – now doubled in quantity – spoils. Using Leyla’s example of a simple grocery item, lettuce, we can see how destructive this thought process is.
What percentage of consumers would buy more than one head of lettuce if they had the space for it? How much of that lettuce will go to waste, and how much will actually be eaten? Let’s explore the life cycle of a head of lettuce, and we will see how even a healthy choice can be tainted if not thought through all the way.
Like all natural food, lettuce is grown on a farm or in some sort of agricultural setting. This takes up land. Higher demand for lettuce to fill our fridges means more land use, often depleting the natural landscape and the ecosystem that inhabits it. Farming requires the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which leach into the ground and into freshwater. Loss of biodiversity, water contamination, and other side effects of eutrophication set in. Fuel needed to power farm machinery comes with its own carbon footprint. If greenhouses are in use, electricity is required to power these spaces. Water for growing and eventually cleaning the vegetables is concentrated into one area, meanwhile we have a worldwide potable water shortage. The health of the laborers working around the chemicals, dangerous machinery, and the emissions of both, is constantly threatened. Usually by plane or a cross-country trip in an 18-wheeler, the lettuce is transported to your grocer’s shelf, and then your own. Then you toss it because it didn’t stay. Lettuce, as Leyla points out, is biodegradable, but only if its disposed of in a waste management facility that allows it to decompose naturally. But your trash likely goes into a landfill, where only heavy amounts of trapped methane are released into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 20x as detrimental as carbon. Consider the environmental impact of one harvest of lettuce; each step in the cycle is tied to a major environmental issue, with a string of other issues attached to it. then remember that Leyla leaves us with the haunting fact that half of all worldwide food is wasted.
Consumers have to start buying what they can use, and they need better means to protect that product. What if the fridge was better equipped to keep one head of lettuce fresh, rather than store 3 rotten ones? If the consumers want it, and we can build it, why couldn’t we focus our energy on making a fridge that isn’t the biggest, but the best at keeping food? Through understanding what makes one product the “greener” product, consumers will begin to comprehend why a green alternative was made in the first place: because designers are starting to understand this difference, too. The decision of sustainable vs. conventional is no longer based on preference, but logic. It is this collective realization that will inspire consumers to inherently want the greener product, and then to demand even that product be improved. The solution is up to the designers. What’s even better, this solution can still be ELEGANT. We can still appeal to the demand for luxury while collectively decreasing our carbon footprint.