'We are entering a golden age of design': The man behind the $100 laptop is putting the sexy back in green living

Yves Béhar gives Caroline Kamp his top tips for an ethical home
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The Independent Online

Yves Béhar is an industrial designer behind such diverse projects as the world's first $100 laptop and a shoe bag which reduces packaging waste by 65 per cent. His work is notable for its humanitarian, ethical and sustainable approach. He designs with longevity in mind and considers design as a force for good – not just fancy packaging.

In his 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk, he revealed he had been inspired to set up his company by a quotation which read: "Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal". He set up his San Francisco-based design firm, fuseproject, in 1999 after being frustrated by the Silicon Valley computer companies who didn't want to change, but wanted only designers to do the styling. The award-winning design and branding agency has had considerable success with both commercial and not-for-profit clients.

Béhar worked with social welfare organisation One Laptop Per Child to develop the robust, low-energy $100 laptop for children in the developing world. To date, two million laptops have been distributed and in Uruguay every child between the ages of six to 12 has one. It has been designed to look different, like it's for a child, but it's not a toy, and has the integration of great technology. It has a screen you can read in sunlight and a keyboard made of rubber which is protected from the environment.

On a commercial level he designed the Jawbone mobile phone accessory. It rests on your skin, so it knows when you're talking and gets rid of environmental noise. The idea was to take out all the nerdy elements, to think of it as an item of jewellery and make it as beautiful as possible. It's part of Béhar's humanistic belief in designing from the inside out, rather than just an exercise in style from the outside in.

Here, Béhar talks us through ways we can all live a more ethical life at home without feeling like we're giving too much up.

Family comes first

"What people are most concerned with first, is their health and the health of their children. But actually, choices that are made in the home for health reasons, match ethical and sustainable principles. Living in a healthy environment, whether it's what you sit on or what you eat, and developing a taste for things that are simply cleaner and more natural is a good way to start. It's important for me to do both for myself and for my children, so they appreciate the taste of things, whether it's food or materials or the environment".

Teach your kids about quality

"There's something that I truly believe, which is by exposing children to quality, to things made in a quality fashion, that this is something they will seek later in life. It's a very simple principle. The challenge is the things children get offered or given so there is some editing to do before things get into your house".

Make considered decisions

"Old furniture, whether classic or modern, will always be less harmful than the brand new, unless the the old pieces have been recently refinished. Beware of indoor pollution made by furniture and finishes: plywoods and other MDF-style woods have glues inside that create a high level of outgassing, as well as paints applied to woods and surfaces. Even low-volatile organic compound paints still contain harmful chemicals. Generally an attitude that considers new purchases for the home as 'conscious', will help to create an environment that is safer from harmful chemicals, and keep the indoor air and the ambience positive and natural."

Switch to LED power at home

"Use LED light bulbs – long-lasting and low-energy – whenever possible. Replace television plasma screens with LED screens, which consume 50 per cent less power. It is actually very likely that in the next few years or so, plasma screens will be banned, as they have such a huge draw on electricity. You can also connect appliances to power strips so that when they are turned off, we avoid 'vampire' power. I'm not yet able to use solar panels on my house; it's a project in the pipeline. I have a lot of LED fixtures, some of which I've designed, such as the Leaf lamp for Herman Miller. And use dimmers as well – they cut down significantly on power consumption."

Keep your current car

"My intention in the next couple of years is to install a small electric charging station – the Watt Station, which I designed for GE – and power my electric car overnight during low peak hours. I don't have an electric car yet, but in the next year or two, I will purchase one. I have kept my old car until the ultimate solution would come. My personal opinion is the hybrid car is a stopgap solution, so I'd rather get to the point of the ultimate driving experience that I'm looking for than get something in between that I would eventually have to change anyway."

Drink tap-water

"Replacing plastic bottles with pitchers and water filters is easy. The things that I note are some of the small things that are easy to do, but which because of laziness or lack of attention, people don't do. For example, when I go to a company and they serve you bottled water. It seems such an easy change to make, and a way to state your intentions. Just serve water in pitchers and glasses. When you notice the details, it reveals a lack of attention that probably reflects on the entire organisation. I do notice things. I wouldn't say they make me mad, but I'm saddened by opportunities that aren't taken, particularly by people who are supposed to lead and show by example."

Use your voice

"People always say vote with your wallet, but today, consumers have a much bigger role. With the internet and blogs, and the fact that anyone can do a review and send comments to companies, there is a sense that everybody has a role now. I believe this is to be a commentator of the ideas you relate to. You can buy things and support them at the same time. When we launch products, we always look at Twitter and look at the blogs. It's really amazing how people are so excited to see and experience alternatives, to cheer on or challenge the companies that are simply approaching manufacturing or commerce in a different way.

As consumers we have information about the products that are out there, their toxicity levels, their involvement in other social issues, but we also have the power to comment on it – to cheer people on. And any company with half a brain today looks at those Twitter or blogger impressions, and makes notes about what people are saying. I know, because we do. The companies we work with see those commentaries and experience immediately both the positive and negative of what they do. So the consumer has more influence today than they ever did before."

Be part of something big

"In the industry, we're always trying to sell things with this mentality of poverty, which in my opinion doesn't work. What I mean by that is there's a mentality of 'we're giving you less', or 'here's a new version of what we used to do that is less than it was before'. Which is a way of telling people you're making an effort in the way you're making, building, producing things. It's a good start, but I don't think it's a great consumer hook." Béhar worked with Puma to redesign its shoe packaging and earlier this year launched the innovative Clever Little Bag, which combines box and bag into a single package.

"What I think you have to approach your consumers with is that by redesigning your infrastructure and your distribution systems, you are able to give people more. The very fact that you're rethinking an essential part of your production, such as the shoe box, is what people are interested in. In this case, the consumer gets to carry the product home in a reusable bag, without a giant plastic bag. We've rethought this process in a way to lower significantly the carbon footprint, but we've also rethought the experience as a way to give you more, to make you part of our efforts." Changing the Puma shoe box means that for the 80 million pairs of shoes shipped every year, there is a 65 per cent reduction on packaging waste.

Support good design

"I see the next 10 or 20 years as a new golden era of design. I think design is more important today than marketing or advertising. The focus is going back to the days when we had Raymond Loewy, Charles Eames and George Nelson – when designers were the shepherds of companies. Today, there isn't much that advertisers can really tell their customers that they don't already know, and there isn't much they can really do apart from create great products and services."