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Transparent Green

By: David Bergman

January 02, 2006

It's time to get rid of the concept of green design. Let me explain.

Science fiction author and design advocate Bruce Sterling, recently asked, "What if green design were just good design?" He talked about "sacrificing the bohemian romance" of the earthy earnest look so that green could become more mainstream. He's right, but it'll take more than that to get green products out of small boutiques and into Wal-Mart and Target. And we know what the issues are: cost, knowledge, availability, perceived quality, and design.

Let's say for now that green products cost the same as other products. (In reality, we need to somehow restructure the marketplace so that the price of something reflects its true cost, including environmental impact, health costs, etc. but that's another story.) And let's say that comparative, easy-to-understand product information — "green labeling" — was available so that consumers could make educated decisions.

We've now imagined away two barriers, costs and consumer knowledge. Pie in the sky, maybe, but go with it for now. And I'm going to ignore availability, because that'll happen when the cost and demand align.

That leaves us with two related barriers.

Many people think that eco-products are inferior in their effectiveness, performance or durability. Pre-conceptions usually have some basis in reality and eco-products are no exception. Certainly, there have been inferior green products offered in the name of saving the planet and they have marred the reputation of the entire genre. Overcoming this fear of inferiority requires a consumer education campaign — no small undertaking.

Another common notion is that eco-products look different. They're for tree-huggers, former hippies and upper income liberals who aren't into high modernism. This, too, is partially true and is the fault of us designers.

How did this come about? For many, the ecology movement, eco-design's progenitor, began with the energy crisis of the early Seventies. Along with a gasoline shortage, pollution was in the news. Lake Erie was declared dead and Cuyahoga River was on fire. Seventies ecologists looked like an outgrowth of the Sixties anti-war generation. The lifestyle was hippy and handmade and eco-products could be crude and expensive. Most of all, you couldn't buy them in the department store or on the mall. They weren't mainstream.

Why? Part of the answer is that green designers tended to work in a world separate from "regular" design. And this produced furniture and household goods and even electronics that often subordinated esthetics — meaning the type of design that other designers focus on — to environmental issues. Or, when there's been an esthetic, it's been that, uh, granola-look.

This must stop. We can't keep saying there is design and there is green design. This separation does a disservice to the success of our designs, green or otherwise. So long as there is a disconnect between the general design world and eco-design, there will be a division of the market into two parts: the mainstream and the eco-niche, and the eco-niche loses.

It's incumbent upon green designers to make designs that will sell. Design the greenest, most sustainable refrigerator, but it won't matter a bit if no one buys it. If it doesn't sell, it doesn't have an impact. Unless eco-designs replace other products in a substantial way, they won't have a significant environmental impact. Twenty electric cars in Los Angeles will not improve the air quality. And a handful of hand-cranked radios won't dent the piles of batteries going to landfills.

That's not totally true. A failed green design can affect other designs. It can influence and demonstrate possibilities. But it's more likely to have the opposite effect if it fails to sell.

Market success is also necessary to financial success. Yeah, that's pretty obvious. But an eco-product's market failure has additional repercussions because of its message to industry and the public. The perception that the public doesn't care about green becomes a "fact" that's cited in corporate boardrooms and by government policy makers. And this spins a vicious circle. Arguably, we do more harm than good in developing unsuccessful eco-designs. This criticism bears repeating. It's a problem that emanates from design firms and corporate offices down to design schools that still haven't incorporated eco-design into their core studies.

But wait. The first thing I wrote was that it's time to get rid of green design. "He's contradicting himself", I hear you saying. Well no, not exactly. What I meant in my opening line was that we have to get rid of the consumer category of green design.

Actually, that's not exactly it either. What I mean is we need to hide it. Eco-design should be so completely imbedded in a design that it is an integral, indistinguishable part of the whole design. And when we've done that, and put the eco aspects on a par with function and color and sexiness, the design will stand on its own.

Once we've made the eco-properties of a design invisible, then we can appeal to the mainstream. Until then, it's not gonna happen. We know that most consumers are cool to eco-products. The ambivalent ones may buy green if it doesn't cost more and is readily available. The anti-greens avoid products with the eco label. So, to sell to all these consumers, we have to practice stealth green. A more positive way of saying the same thing is that we need to make the product appealing without touting its environmental qualities. And, really, that's the way it should be anyhow.

This doesn't mean forsaking our loyal green buyers. The green is still there, and dedicated greenies will know it. It's just transparent; it's not there unless you're looking for it. It's Transparent Green. Here's the ultimate goal of green design — make it disappear. Make every product's green virtue so integral that it' s assumed; so fundamental that it's there whether you're looking for it or not. It's our job to put it there. And then, don't tell anyone.



David Bergman is principal of David Bergman Architect and founder of Fire & Water Lighting + Furniture. He teaches sustainable design at Parsons School of Design and is a LEED Accredited Professional. For more see Bergworks GBM

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