| by Dan Black
I need to start by saying that designing environmentally friendly products is not a short term fad. Environmental consideration for any new product is here to stay and will only become more important in the future.
Primarily we are a design company first, but if we do our job well, our products will encourage our customers to live a more sustainable life. We can’t claim to be true ‘eco warriors’ because we are bringing new physical products into existence, but we try to create designs which will function well for years to come and which encourage people to live and enjoy being more environmentally responsible.
The challenge is where you draw the line with what is truly environmental and the hidden factors that most people are not aware of. According to a definition given by the website all-recycling-facts.com, eco-friendly products are “products that do not harm the environment whether in their production, use or disposal”
As a product design company which has spent the last 20+ years bringing new products to market, we feel an increasing responsibility to make sure every new design we launch has eco credentials. But ‘eco credentials’ is a broad term. It can be ambiguous and wide ranging and needs further explanation and dissection.
When I say ‘design’ I am referring to the product in relation to its form and function. When we create a new product, we want to avoid short fad functionability that make the product a ‘gadget’ (we define a ‘gadget’ as a product which has a short term usage, that gets used once but is not truly functional and ultimately ends up being discarded).
We want our designs to be truly functional, so people will want to use them for a lifetime (i.e. so even the function does not get outdated and is not technology led). The form should not be so influenced by a trend in shape, colour or pattern that it will look outdated in years to come.
In recent years we have adopted a modern utilitarian aesthetic that is minimal and timeless. It has a hint of vintage rugged honesty, but is exercised in a contemporary way that avoids superfluous details that will age badly. The design also takes into consideration the factor of product integrity and how it will age in use. We try to engineer and test products, so they are built to last a lifetime. We also try to keep in stock individual components that make up our products, so that if a small part of a product breaks through being dropped or misuse, a customer can order this component to fix their product rather than having to buy a whole new product.
When discussing the eco credentials of materials, you need to take into consideration the ‘life-cycle’. Life-cycle assessment is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling.
Where possible we try to use non plastic materials like wood, glass or stainless steel. We look to use materials which have the ability to age well, even when dented, worn or scratched. If a product can function well and age well, then it has a better chance of being cherished and looked after and this will give it a longer life which will have less impact on the environment and greatly impact the life-cycle.
There has been a recent backlash against using plastic, but this needs careful consideration and not a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to avoid using plastic at all costs. Sometimes plastic is the best material for the application and even the most environmental friendly option. We always try to use it responsibly and if the ‘design’ element as discussed above is considered, then it can be used well. It also helps to increase the life and value given to plastic if it is used in conjunction with higher quality materials.
This area of a product has massive importance but also presents the biggest challenges. Because we produce high value designs made from quality materials, our consumers also expect the product packaging to reflect this. We try to keep our packaging to a minimum and always use recyclable materials. All the cardboard we use is always uncoated, so it can be recycled fully.
Packaging serves two purposes. It needs to protect the product, so that it can go from factory to end user without damage. It also needs to help market / communicate the benefits of the product when displayed in store on a shelf or received by the end user. This results in a balancing act with trying to keep the packaging minimal but ensuring it structurally protects the product and gives us enough space to communicate what is inside and how it functions.
In terms of protecting the product, this is a challenge and especially with online sales where products need to be able to withstand the rough handling from factory to end consumer. Customers will not accept a product which arrives damaged or dirty. Online sales have introduced other challenges with packaging. When someone buys an individual product from our website, our warehouses will use recycled boxes to send these out rather than new outer boxes. Sometimes this results in smaller products being sent in boxes which are quite a bit larger, but we believe this is justified by the fact that the boxes are recycled.
We supply some of our products in a plastic bag surround. While we understand the aversion to plastic bags, this bag ensures the product is protected from getting dirty, damp or damaged in transport which would not be accepted by the end consumer (and ultimately lead to returns). The bag is fully recyclable, but obviously places the responsibility on the end consumer to make sure they do separate their waste properly. We could use paper to wrap our products, but in order for this to perform properly, it would require an amount of paper that would have a bigger environmental impact when compared with the minimal amount of plastic used in a small recyclable bag (plus we haven’t yet found a tissue paper that can be recycled). This leads to the question of whether it is better to use recycled material that can’t be recycled again or recyclable material that can be used again. There is no straight forward answer and each product and use of material needs evaluating on an individual basis.
One of our best selling products is our binchotan charcoal. We supply this is vacuum packed in recyclable plastic, so that the customer can open and use immediately without having to sterilise first. Because the plastic is shrink wrapped, it is hard to apply readable text that communicates the benefits of charcoal filters and how it encourages people to drink tap water instead of buying bottled water (which is so bad for the environment – see https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-bottled-water/ ). Because there is no text on the shrink wrap, we package this in a card box that helps communicate the benefits and also protects the charcoal from breaking or the vacuum wrap being pierced. We could supply the charcoal in tissue paper, instead of shrink wrap, but this would mean each individual customer would then need to boil the charcoal before use and this would ultimately waste more energy when compared with boiling multiple charcoals en mass. This example shows the complexity and need to judge a products environmental impact as a much bigger picture and not just on one individual point.
There are many products on the market that have jumped on the eco bandwagon. They claim to be ‘eco’ but when you look closer, it becomes clear that they are trading on false promise and doing what is called ‘greenwashing’ to persuade consumers they are environmental. If you take for example many biodegreadable plastics or bamboo fibre, there are so many reports that explain that these have major issues of not breaking down fully (even after three years) and can even form micro plastic which is even harder to remove from the environment and certainly not recycle.
In order to prevent irreversible environmental damage to our planet, the world needs to change its ways. It needs an ‘eco intervention’, where designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers all take up the challenge and be more discerning and responsible for the impact we have on our planet. At black+blum, we will continue to challenge ourselves on the products and packaging we are introducing to the market and always look to improve what we do and the impact we have.