"Sorry green design, it's over"


"Sustainability turned out to be unsustainable"

Opinion: in a special Valentine's column, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs explains why designers have dumped dowdy green design in favour of glamorous robots.

Tech has killed green. Until recently the design world was on a mission to save the planet; now it seems enthralled by gadgets. Adjectives like "sustainable" and "eco" have been usurped by upstarts such as "smart" and "hacked". The cardboard furniture glut of recent years has disintegrated; recycling has gone to landfill.

It's not long since design-school grad shows were dominated by the hand-made, the low-tech and the organic; now it's all embedded sensors and connected devices. Design fairs have ditched the obligatory maker or two turning discarded pop bottles into chandeliers - or knitting seaweed into cushions - for 3D printers and robots. Collaborations with Vietnamese basket weavers are out; Raspberry Pi mashups are in. In Milan this year the young Dutch contingent will no doubt have stopped serving wholesome hyper-local snacks and will instead be touting lab meat and printed biscuits.

Green design felt right at the start of the economic crisis: it sought to replace over-indulgence with frugality, served with a side order of punishment for our wickedness. Penal minimalism was all the rage: spartan furniture made of ethically sourced timber that was so good for you, it hurt.

Natural was good, artificial was bad. Soon we'd all be growing our own organic food on our city balconies and installing complex plumbing to irrigate it with our bathwater. We'd be going off-grid, hooking up to domestic wind turbines and pondering the plausibility of upcycling under our solar-powered lamps.

It was a romantic vision, but a pessimistic one. It demanded we atone for resource scarcity by making do with less. It suggested we undo the damage caused by rampant consumerism by engaging in a paradoxical and ill-defined un-consumption. We would buy our products only once, and they would last us forever, whether we liked it or not.

But sustainability turned out to be unsustainable. We just didn't have the time; we couldn't afford to be green. We thought the products looked ugly. We didn't enjoy the preachiness or the guilt.

But most of all we got seduced by tech. iPads! Plasma TVs! Replicator 2s! Drones! Anything, as long as we can plug it in or put batteries in it. Anything, as long as it has a touchscreen or makes a reassuring beeping sound.

Even green design blogs such as Inhabitat and Treehugger have experienced technophiliac mission creep and now cover smartphone-powered satellites and 3D-printing on the moon as well as passive ventilation.

Design movements come in regular waves, of course. In my fifteen years as a design journalist I've witnessed the tail end of the Dutch conceptual boom around the millennium; the return of decoration in the early noughties, spearheaded by Marcel Wanders and Tord Boontje; and the design-art bubble of the mid-noughties. These are just a few of the fads that have swept through design.

But green design felt different as it sought to both comment on, and provide solutions to, a more profound set of questions than designers usually address. It felt too important to be a passing phase.

In truth, green didn't completely die. Some aspects of it became so ubiquitous that they vanished from view. Many products today use less packaging, less embodied energy and fewer nasty chemicals than they did a decade ago. They just don't shout about it so much. Green became normal.

But green's message did not adapt and it ran out of steam. It fell foul of the law of diminishing returns: it's easy to make the first cut in your carbon footprint, but every subsequent one gets more difficult. And because the back-to-nature, made-do-and-mend doctrine supped from a limited gene pool of visual stimulus, it became an aesthetic trap. Once you've hewn furniture from raw timber, there's not much further you can go.

Technology however is intrinsically optimistic: each new development, each new device brings the promise of a new future. Each new way of arranging atoms or bits opens the door to a new solution cloaked in a new form. And since these elements are infinitely configurable, technological development is more sustainable than sustainability, since it will never run out of ideas.

It's harsh to break the news on Valentine's Day but here it is: sorry green design, it's over. It wasn't really going anywhere. And we've fallen in love with a robot.

  • madspalsrud

    I am surprised by the hollowness of these observations. Green design has always been stupidly naive, thinking that just removing some packaging and using bottles for everything was the solution is quite unintelligent.

    But an object is nothing without the user, and the world is not changing towards more tech because it looks better and is more fun, and that we can put together things on a nano level.

    Tech is possibly the future because it has the possibility to engage actors in completely new ways. But it is not the only way.

  • Andrew

    Surely this is comment bait and not a serious opinion? Green design and tech are not completely separate entities.

    • courtrai

      They aren’t indeed, as shown in this project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embed

    • Exactly – it’s wrong to think green and tech are mutually exclusive! What about energy-saving devices like Nest’s thermostat? That product shows the two concepts inherently combined.

  • Kate

    I’m a industrial design student who’s been studying sustainable design both in the UK and abroad and I personally don’t see this disconnection between design, green issues and technology. Just because green now appears normal doesn’t mean that it has disappeared- surely it’s laudable that it is now so integrated into our design thinking. Look at Tony Fadell’s Nest – that is definitely not ugly and surely would be an example where smart tech has been combined successfully into a sustainable, behaviour challenging product.

    Companies like Apple and Phillips are becoming increasingly worried about technology and it’s environmental impact – critical raw materials are the new worry and are effecting governmental and EU legislation dramatically enough to stimulate serious tremblings in the boardrooms and design departments.

    Robots and smart tech might be the new infatuation but beware, dowdy green design will continue to battle for your affections.

  • Guest

    Where are all these robots that people think are the future of design? I don’t see them anywhere.

  • Greenwashing is a fad. Green design is not. People who actually have to put buildings up have to deal with Part L, LEED for US federal buildings etc etc.

    As for the so-called ‘technology’ (gadgetry) – architects are jumping on the bandwagon of something that moves much much more quickly than physical architecture typically does. Consequently the technological impacts, if timely, are usually skin deep or ephemeral and if not, just out of date.

    I am watching all of the 3D printing porn with mild amusement. I would go much much beyond Sam Jacob’s recent critique. Green design, of course, lives.

  • SaJ

    Tech and green will come together.

  • Emmett

    Tech is simply the appropriate evolution of green design.

  • Jazzin

    “Technology however is intrinsically optimistic: each new development, each new device brings the promise of a new future. Each new way of arranging atoms or bits opens the door to a new solution cloaked in a new form. And since these elements are infinitely configurable, technological development is more sustainable than sustainability, since it will never run out of ideas”.

    Green design and technology are certainly not two completely separate entities, as the author of this article seems to suggest. They don’t cancel each other out, but on the contrary in this day and age inherently linked in many aspects. http://www.dezeen.com/2011/06/04/dezeen-screen-en

    In his book from 2009 titled Green Design: creative sustainable designs for the twenty-first century, the author actually appears to be entirely contradicting his above opinions by stating: “… these are early days in the design’s green revolution: ideas are still being tested; technologies still being perfected.” p.9 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Green-Design-Marcus-Fairs
    And now, a bit more than three years later, green design is dead and overtaken by technology?

    Sorry, but it’s really difficult to take a segment titled OPINION seriously when the editor-in-chief seems to have difficulty in maintaining one.

    • oli

      Jazzin you are so damn accurate about this. Furthermore, the whole thing is written in such a shallow, unbiased manner with an “I think so therefore it must be true ” attitude. It’s flaky.

    • SSD

      I agree. Well done.

  • Ruben

    You’re losing my attention, Dezeen. Change isn’t always a good thing apparently.

  • BriH

    C’mon folks, don’t you realise Marcus has opined this to get precisely the reactions he has provoked? I sense a small piece of tongue firmly in cheek. Maybe I’m just a cynic?

    • Des

      We all understand this, but such a superficial argument is an insult to the intelligence of the regular reader of Dezeen. Maybe it would work right away and start a flame war if this was a Gawker site, with the so-wanted shares on Facebook.

  • Calvin

    Robots have been around for a while.

    Alexander McQueen Spring Summer 1999:

    Studio Lynn 2007:

  • I think that the author intentionally chose the title to create the expected shock reaction, whereas in reality he’s focusing on the ‘low-tech/hug-Mother-Gaia’ fad that indeed was all the rage some 5 years ago.

    I remember how here in Dezeen I commented on a café in Australia where recycled timber had been used. Many people thought the project was beautiful, whereas I thought it look unsanitary, and I was quickly lambasted by many visitors, who presumably lived in Europe and all the other countries in which the guilt factor had played an important role to sell the idea of low-tech green design. I found it ironic how the citizens of developed nations were suddenly striving to copy the aesthetics of a Brazilian favela :P

    The fact of the matter is that design ideas are not created in a vacuum, and designers are always reacting to current social trends. The Western world has simply refused to slow down its relentless consumerist pace –and let’s be honest here, if it actually had, that would mean 90% of us professionals would have been kicked out of our jobs.

    So IMO applying tech to green ideas is actually much smarter than trying to embrace folk craftsmanship in design curricula. And with 8 billion human beings living on this planet, a smart use of industrial resources is the only way our civilization’s gonna make it.

    Unless that solar tsunami finally hits us this year, and then we can all retreat inside a cave and follow Tyler Durden’s plan.

  • Flippedbydesign

    Very nice! Even in the eco-boringness pinnacle, I’ve always been waiting for the time ecological approaches would become common-place and everyone would stop bragging about being green. As Bjarke Ingels states on “Yes is more”- ecological initiatives will only prosper in the real world if they work as viable economical models.

  • mat

    Green design is so much more than those bottles and raw wood that have been mentioned. I’m quite surprised it seems to be flattened this way in the text. Maybe it’s an irony I didn’t grasp.

    Bottle chandeliers are a way to show off a manifesto – just to focus our attention on an idea. When you think deeper, it’s not a very eco way of thinking. I’m not saying this is not a green design – but it’s a tip of the iceberg. Nano robotics, 3D printing, iPads and all those amazing prosthetics made nowadays are also a part of, lets say, holistic thinking, sustainability (but not a naive one).

    Green is not an analog thing; it’s also digital. Don’t simplify. Design simple and ingenious things, but think complex.

  • “Tech has killed the green.” Great sentence as a journalist, but not as a sustainability expert or designer. Does it mean, to you, that an electronic item cannot be recycled nor save water or trees? It is a common huge mistake to mix natural and organic with sustainable. This is totally wrong. In my experience as a designer and director of the IED Barcelona sustainable design master course, no big or general sentences are real. And of course, tech can be green too!

  • “In truth, green didn’t completely die. Some aspects of it became so ubiquitous that they vanished from view. Many products today use less packaging, less embodied energy and fewer nasty chemicals than they did a decade ago. They just don’t shout about it so much. Green became normal.”

    There’s more truth in this one paragraph of yours than in your entire article. Green has mainstreamed to a large extent and that’s the best news on the planet. There have been huge strides in sustainable manufacturing methods and materials. Green design today is about choosing these reimagined materials and sourcing from responsible manufacturers, not about putting a table hewn from raw timber in front of your sofa, the very image that was holding green design back.

    Technology has its place too – smart homes with their technological gadgets reduce electrical consumption just as reading books on your iPad or Kindle reduces the burden on our forests and energy resources. These technologies should be promoted by Treehugger and the like, because this is the way that modern man integrates green choices into his lifestyle.

    It has not replaced green design – quite the contrary, it embodies it.

  • Viktor Vektor

    This kind of writing makes me feel sick inside.

  • I agree; now it is normal to think about a new design product with a green mind. Technology is the future!

  • Richard

    Disappointingly shallow article.

  • mstndvn

    Tech and green are not exclusive but certainly not always in agreement. And when tech has captured the heart to the point of addiction, anything could happen.

  • beatrice

    Are we not talking about green-styled design being replaced by tech-styled design? That’s certainly true. Surface activity. But there’s real green design and real tech design in the world that has nothing to do with fashion.

  • Pablo

    True Andrew, true!