Marketing Sustainability to Industrial Designers

“Regulations in Europe and Japan mandate greener products, and, if the U.S. does not design its products to be in step with these regulations, they will not compete in the global marketplace,” says Jacquelyn Ottman, president of J. Ottman Consulting, a firm that helps businesses develop and market environmentally sound products and services. As concern for the environment escalates worldwide, Ottman, the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, sees the need to jumpstart eco-education among U.S. product developers. Design: Green, a groundbreaking program in which Ottman plays a leading role, was developed to address this concern.

According to Ottman, several European nations, particularly the Netherlands, are well ahead of the U.S. when it comes to sustainable product design in terms of knowledge base, sophistication level, and regulations. And, while the American building and interior design industries have been formally “greening” themselves since the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council and the EPA’s Energy Star program over a decade ago, product and industrial design have lagged behind in formalized maturation and development.

“The Design: Green program workshops provide formalization by providing strategic, actionable business solutions for sustainable product design,” Ottman says. “We use the Business-Ecodesign Tools, developed by the Industrial Designers Society of America, to help American designers make the business case for green and address the technical factors of eco-design.” While the Design: Green workshops offer globally applicable strategies, Ottman fosters a grassroots approach in each host city by tapping local individuals already involved with various aspects of sustainability to interact with attendees.

Ottman believes that today’s product manufacturers and industrial designers should address environmental challenges from the inception of the design process. “‘Greening up’ is where product and industrial design have been focused for the past 20 years, in response to increasing environmental regulations,” she says. “Now, we need to move toward a next generation of products and services that use fewer resources from their inception, thereby significantly reducing their negative affects on the environment from the start.”

Industrial designers may have the most difficult time addressing sustainable design, according to Ottman, as the concept of product “fitness” is largely foreign to them. “Industrial design is all about mass production, and sustainability is about fitting the product to the user, the climate, and the local resources,” she says. “Industrial designers will have to understand and address this difference in order to fully and effectively embrace sustainability as it is practiced by related disciplines.”

Ottman cites “holism” as an important way that green designers can learn from each other and promote sustainability. “A holistic approach to building design results in enhanced overall environmental and quality performance,” she says. “Product designers should interface with building designers and interior designers, because if the product designer is creating the carpet or lighting or furniture, they have to understand how these elements are going to interact with the interiors.”

Marketing also plays a key role in green design innovation and success. “Green products have a history of misperception about their performance,” Ottman says, mentioning laundry detergents that left clothes dirty and sputtering florescent lights that cast a green haze as examples. She thinks that while technology has evolved to the point where many of today’s green products actually outperform their “brown” competitors, a negative stigma still lingers among many consumers.

“Marketers need to acknowledge these barriers and continually address them in order to innovate the industry,” Ottman says. “And designers cannot fall into the trap of creating green products and thinking that consumers will pay a premium for that fact alone. They won’t. Real benefits, plus cool design, have to be built in.”

Ottman has a clear vision for the future of sustainability in America. “Five years from now, I’d like to see government initiatives that help level the playing field for sustainable technologies,” she says, advocating that consumers pay the real cost to society for products they buy, such as a carbon tax on products and services that create greenhouse gas emissions. Ottman feels that this requirement alone would make green energy options more attractive, as would increased consumer incentives, such as income tax rebates, for using greener technologies.

She also believes that consumers should be further educated in the real environmental impacts of the products they buy. “I think we need a crying Indian for the renewable energy industry to really capture the emotion behind this movement and to motivate consumers to start scrutinizing both products and manufacturers,” she says. “Design: Green is working toward these goals by educating the current and future leaders of green design right now.”

To download a PDF of the Design:Green Workshop Handout and Eco-Design Resource Guide, click here.

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