Research Log: IT’S OUR F***ING BACKYARD
Sustainable or greenwashing?
How to evaluate brands as a consumer
by Ab Stevels
How to evaluate brands as a consumer
by Ab Stevels
On the occasion of the exhibition It’s our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures the Stedelijk commissioned emeritus professor Ab Stevels of TU Delft to write a set of Research Logs about the use of sustainable materials and the history of its design and application. Drawing from decades of experience in both design, industry, and academic fields, in this set of logs he addresses what designers and companies can do to become more sustainable. but also how as consumers, we can all become more vigilant of companies that might be greenwashing their activities.
We live in the information age, which makes it a lot easier for consumers to assess products relatively objectively and independently of manufacturer claims. This empowerment of consumers has been one of the greatest rewards of the internet.
But the internet is of course also an inexhaustible source of meaningless generalities, utter nonsense and even misinformation. The last of these certainly applies to the topic of sustainability. In this field there are plenty of politically correct opinions consisting of popular slogans and fashionable jargon. In such a setting, established facts are the only good starting point in assessing publicity material and other claims relating to sustainability. This is not to deny our feelings regarding the environment; but we should not allow our sentiment to completely dominate our judgement.
There are three criteria by which to assess manufacturers’ sustainability claims:
Many companies publish annual sustainability reports. Here are some quick tips on assessing these:
Search for the item online and read the product specifications. What does it say about weight, power consumption, recyclability, and availability of aftersales services to help extend the life of the product?
How do these figures compare with those of similar products by other manufacturers?
See if your national consumers’ association has published results of product testing performed in the category.
The results of the above should be enough for you to form a decent impression of the product. While this isn’t exactly the most rigorous assessment you could perform, the conclusions you draw from it will be correct more nine times out of ten.
Go shopping, not to actually buy anything but rather to see how different brands and retailers address sustainability and convey their efforts. Mono-brand stores (such as Apple stores and IKEA outlets) are often the most interesting in this regard, but multi-brand stores are also worth a visit.
Food packaging is a good way to see what grocery stores and food brands are up to. Better still, look at the portion weights of pre-packaged meals, vegetables and meat, which often exceed the amounts recommended by bodies like the Health Council of the Netherlands. Remember that storing surplus food at home consumes unnecessary energy. And stores offering high volume deals on for instance meat of any kind (kiloknallers In Dutch) are obviously not serious about sustainability.
Finally, there’s the standard measure of environmental seriousness: how many products bearing eco-friendly labels does the store offer, and, equally revealing, where are they located? At eye level or only on the bottom shelf?
Harmless fun perhaps, but fun with a serious purpose!
Installation view It’s my F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures: Use Reuse Repeat section with, among other pieces, the transparent Godmorgon boxes by IKEA and the Tipton Chair by BarberOsgerby for Vitra. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
Albert (“Ab”) Stevels studied Chemical Engineering at the Technical University of Eindhoven and took a PhD degree in Physics and Chemistry at Groningen University. He has worked for Royal Philips Electronics in manifold capacities in materials research, glass production technology, as a business manager in electro-optics, and as a project manager for joint ventures and licensing in Asia. These experiences helped him develop the concept of Applied EcoDesign and integrate it into day-to-day business operations. He has also conducted a great deal of in-depth research on the treatment of discarded electronics, the findings of which helped lay the groundwork for setting up take-back and recycling systems at Philips NL. In 1995 Ab was appointed professor in Environmental Design at Delft University of Technology. He has had visiting professorships at several universities including Stanford University, TU Berlin, Georgia Institute of Technology, NTN University in Trondheim, and Tsinghua University in Beijing. He also worked with the University of Sao Paulo to develop an MBA program and Sustainability course.
Stevels is the author of some 200 journal articles and conference contributions. For more on his experiences with green design and in-house management of ‘eco’ and e-waste, see his book Adventures in EcoDesign of Electronic Products.