Designs for green living come spluttering into life

Any shopper knows that companies make many claims about environmental friendliness. For instance, they offer kitchen towels made from recycled paper, detergents that supposedly do not leak dangerous chemicals into the soil and ozone-friendly aerosols. But, according to research, incorporating such concerns into design is a hit-and-miss affair.

Martin Charter, joint co-ordinator at the Centre of Sustainable Design at Surrey Institute of Art & Design, last week told a conference he had organised that the development of "eco-design" and "design for environment" programmes was in its early stages, even in some of the world's largest companies. Summarising the results of four surveys, he pointed out that the objectives and strategies of what initiatives there had been in this area often appeared to be vague and unclear, while there were few examples of best practice, frameworks or models.

Moreover, it seems that eco-designs are frequently driven by environmental management rather than design management or product design. And while many organisations are having their thinking affected by customer and legal concerns, ecological issues do not generally appear to be "percolating down to product designs", which seem to receive little pressure to incorporate green issues into client briefs.

However, delegates at the conference heard that some progress was being made. For example, SC Johnson Wax, the privately owned American multinational known in this country for Pledge, Brillo and Mr Muscle, claims to have achieved a number of environmental goals. In addition to claiming the first consumer brand aerosol propelled by compressed air, it has removed 12 of the 13 chemicals identified in 1990 as "not wanted in formulations", drastically reduced the use of volatile organic compounds and of "virgin packaging", and also cut back on manufacturing emissions.

It has set further targets for the years ahead and is seeking to achieve them through considering eco-efficiency at all stages of the product development process. Hewlett-Packard is also using its well-tried taskforce system to tackle the subject. Delegates heard how the California high-technology company had established a "product stewardship network" as a means of overcoming the obstacles posed by functional divisions.

Product stewards attend conferences and seminars where they forge links with different people and share ideas, give briefings and organise workshops inside the organisation and beyond it, and collaborate with other groups focusing on producing improvements to the ways in which Hewlett-Packard does things. They also collaborate on the production of guidelines for the company's designers and provide specimen criteria for many types of environmental decisions. Communication, whether face-to-face, via video or audio-conferencing, or using e-mail and the intranet, is deemed crucial.