Buy Green and Encourage Sustainable Design

Besides avoiding purchases of disposable products and junk that is designed to break, and repairing rather than replacing, you should try to purchase products that are designed sustainably, made from renewable resources, and manufactured locally (to reduce carbon emissions from transportation and to help your local economy). When contemplating a purchase, ask yourself, “Do I really need this product? Will it add value to my life? Was the product manufactured in an eco-friendly way? Will its use harm the environment?”

When making purchases, avoid greenwashing, the practice of attaching a green label to a product that is not eco-friendly ([1], pp. 38-9). A perfect example is the Ortho Ecosense line of insecticides, where the word "Ecosense" is displayed in large green letters, but in smaller letters underneath it says "not intended to imply environmental safety either alone or compared to other products". So why are the letters in green and the prefix "Eco" in the name? Because it helps sell the product, even if for the wrong reasons.

New sustainably designed products are hitting the market, but if no one buys those products, then we will lose the opportunity to help make the market more eco-friendly. Consumers have the power to make the market more green by choosing eco-friendly products.

Simple rules should guide the design of sustainable products. Consumers should look for products that follow these rules. For example, Edwin Datschefski (in “The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products”, Rotovision, 2001) states simply (see [1], p. 86) “that things must be cyclic, solar, and safe”, and that “an object’s total beauty should not be undermined by hidden impacts.”

There are many examples of home interior products that are designed sustainably.  Bamboo is becoming a popular choice for wood flooring because this fast-growing wood is beautiful, durable, and renewable. For carpeting check out DuPont’s Smart-Strand, which is made from corn, is recyclable and biodegradable, and costs no more than comparable nylon carpeting. Using renewable corn instead of non-renewable oil to make the plastic saves a gallon of gas for every seven square yards of carpet.  Eco by Cosentino is a durable surface made of 75% recycled content composed of post-industrial or post-consumer materials bound by an environmentally friendly resin which comes in part from corn oil (See Vetrazzo’s recycled glass countertops contain 85% recycled glass by weight. The glass comes from curbside recycling programs, post-industrial usage, windows, dinnerware, stemware, automotive windshields, stained glass, laboratory glass, reclaimed glass from building demolition, and other unusual sources such as decommissioned traffic lights. Ivy Coatings make a zero VOC, non-toxic paint that can help improve indoor air quality.  Finally, Ultra Touch Insulation is made from recycled denim jean (also

Designing sustainably takes creativity. As stated by the inventor Edwin Land, creative and effective design requires the “sudden cessation of stupidity” ([1], p. 84). When you encounter a creative sustainable design for the first time, the usual reaction is to say, ‘why didn’t anyone think of this before?” because it is better in every respect than the old design, and yet it is simple. A design I recently encountered, the parking lot swale, elicited that reaction from me. Parking lots often flood because asphalt and concrete are impermeable. They need a sink for water to flow into and infiltrate into the ground during heavy rain events. The only permeable surfaces in parking lots are the islands, which are usually raised beds surrounded by concrete barriers. Water does not flow to the islands because it does not flow uphill. A smart and simple alternative is to make the islands depressions into which water will flow (Fig. Parking_swale_schematic.jpg). The depressions do not need to be surrounded by concrete barriers, and they effectively drain water from the parking lot (Fig. Parking_lot_drainage.jpg). And the parking spots themselves can be partially carpeted with grass (Fig. Green_parking_lot_Ikea.jpg) or porous concrete. These measures reduce the risk of flooding, allow water to infiltrate and recharge the aquifer, reduce the “heat island” effect caused by the high heat absorption and thermal mass of asphalt, and reduce the amount of rainwater shunted into storm systems, which saves energy used to pump and treat the water. Also, by increasing the amount of plants, they help increase water retention, remove pollutants, act as windblocks and noise mufflers, and beautify the parking lot. And all of these benefits come for free, because the sustainable design costs no more than the old unsustainable design.

One of the goals of the sustainability movement is to close the manufacturing loop. Currently most products track a linear path from resource extraction to manufacture to use to disposal. In a closed loop products are never disposed of; they are either reused or recycled. How do we know if sustainable practices were followed at each step in the lifecycle of a product? One way is to see if the product has been certified. For example, a Cradle to Cradle (C2C) platinum certified product is produced sustainably, and at the end of its usable life can be recycled, or is biodegradable, as described in “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (North Point Press, 2002).

1. Steffen, A., ed. World Changing: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. 2006, Abrams: New York, NY. 596.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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