Transparent Green

by David Bergman

(See an excerpted version of this article at

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

What's keeping people from buying green products? What's the problem with recycled paper, organic clothing, fuel efficient cars, energy efficient lighting? Why doesn't everyone buy them?

Well, there's probably more than one reason. Here's my semi-objective guess at the most common of them:
1. Cost
2. (Perceived) quality
3. Knowledge
4. Availability
5. Design

Let's say for the moment -- let's assume -- that costs for green products were the same as for other products. (In reality, we need to somehow restructure the marketplace so that the price of something reflects its true cost including environmental impact, usage efficiency, etc., but that's another whole story.) And let's say that comparative information on products was readily available and easily understood. So, for example, you would be able to know that common glass cleansers contain specific toxics and an organic alternative contains another specific ingredient instead, and you could make an educated decision on which you wanted. We do it for food. Why not everything else that affects us and our health?

We've now imagined away reasons 1 and 3, cost and knowledge: costs are equal and consumers are informed. 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 fall into line. I'm still enough of a free market type to believe that.

That leaves us with two barriers, which happen to be related.

Many people have a preconceived notion that eco-products are inferior, perhaps in their effectiveness or performance (maybe that organic glass cleanser will leave streaks) or durability (someone may worry, for example, that a laptop case made with recycled plastic will deteriorate faster). Preconceptions, of course, usually have some basis in reality and eco-products are no exception. There certainly have been inferior green products offered in the name of saving the planet (or assuaging our guilt). Unfortunately, those have marred the reputation, to a certain extent, of the entire genre. But they by no means represent the totality.

To overcome this, though, would require a campaign of consumer education, which is no small– or inexpensive – undertaking.

The other preconception often 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 at least partially true and the fault of us designers.

For many of us, the ecology movement, eco-design's progenitor, began in the energy crisis of the early seventies. Along with a gasoline shortage, pollution was in the news. Lake Erie was declared dead and we saw photos of the Cuyahoga River on fire. But the movement was often seen as a grass roots one – it looked very much like an outgrowth of the sixties anti-war generation. Volkswagen Beetles represented both flower power and gasoline efficiency. The eco movement was basically protests and recycling drives, and the face of its lifestyle was hippy and handmade. Eco-products were seen as crude, low quality and, at the same time, probably more expensive. Most of all, they weren't to be purchased at the department store or the mall. They weren't mainstream.

Why is this? One part of the answer is that green designers have tended to be specialists, a subfield separate from "regular" design. And this compartmentalization has produced furniture and household goods and even electronics that often subordinate esthetics -- meaning the type of design that other designers focus on -- to environmental issues. Or, when there's been an esthetic, it's been a different, green esthetic. Granola.

Let's just say right now this has to stop. We can't keep saying there is design and there is green design. With this separation, we do a disservice to ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, 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 also be a division of the market into two parts: the mainstream and the eco-niche. And the scale difference between the two is enormous.

It's incumbent upon green designers – if I may contradictorily continue to use the term – to make designs that will sell. You could 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.

Of course, that's not totally true. It can affect other designs. It can influence. It can show possibilities. But it can also have the opposite effect if it's a sales failure. And it probably won't pay any of the designer's bills either.

Our eco designs have to be successful for at least two reasons. Unless they 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 being sent to landfills. Market success is necessary to environmental success.

Market success is also necessary to financial success. Yeah, that's pretty obvious. Why else have those GM electric cars been pulled from the dealers? But an eco-product's market failure has additional repercussions because of its message to both industry and the public. The perception that the public doesn't want or care about green becomes "fact" and is cited in corporate boardrooms and government policy making. And this, of course, furthers a self fulfilling prophecy. Arguably, we do more harm than good in developing unsuccessful eco designs.

To end this cycle, we need to do two things. First – and this should be apparent by now – we have to end the belief that eco-design is a separate endeavor. Environmental factors are no more a separate, optional part of design than are materials or form or function or color. Eco awareness is not a choice; it is an integral part of design. All design. A designer who ignored function or ergonomics would not be considered a successful designer. Nor should the designer who ignores ecological impact.

In spite of the fact that this point is not at all original, it is far from acknowledged. It's a problem that exudes from design firms and corporate offices down to design schools that still have not incorporated core studies in eco-design.

But wait. The first thing I wrote here was that it's time to get rid of green design. I'm contradicting myself (again), I hear you saying. Well, no, not exactly. What I meant (but didn't write because it would have loused up 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 to need to hide it. Eco-design should be so completely imbedded in a design that it is an indistinguishable part of the whole design. It should be integral and fundamental, not an add-on or a separate genre. And when we've done that, and put the eco aspects on a par with function and color and sexiness, the design can stand on its own, without the sales crutch (or drag) of green design.

Science fiction author and design advocate (it's not as strange a combination as you might think) Bruce Sterling, in a recent essay, asked "what if green design were just good design?" He talks about "sacrificing the bohemian romance" so that green is taken for granted. That bohemian romance, along with the rebelliousness and imagery it connotes, is not helpful. In fact, it's a hindrance. Even if the resulting products were on a functional par, their visual difference would hamper their success. Like separate-but-equal, it doesn't go far enough and we need real integration. Make the stuff salable in Walmart or Target, not just in a couple of online boutiques.

Once we've made the eco properties of a design invisible, then we can do that – we can appeal to the mainstream. But until then, it's not gonna happen. We know that a majority of consumers are ambivalent about or, worse, have a negative perception of eco products. The ambivalent ones may buy green if it doesn't cost more and is readily available. The anti-greens will actively avoid products with the eco label. So, to sell to these groups, 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 noting -- or relying on -- its environmental qualities. And, really, that's the way it should be anyway.

And we needn't forsake our loyal green buyers in the process, by the way. The green is still there (and the dedicated greenies will know it). It's just transparent; it's not there unless you're looking for it. It's Transparent Green.

This is the ultimate level of green design: making it disappear. Having it so integral that it is assumed; so fundamental that it's there whether you're looking for it or not. Transparent Green is universal green. It's our job to put it there. And then to not tell anyone.


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