Designing for sustainability: what are the challenges behind green materials? | The Guardian

Patagonia rejected fabrics made from bamboo over concerns about chemicals used to process the plant fiber.

Sustainable materials are gaining ground, but long development time frames and gaps in knowledge make commercialisation tricky |

Learning to surf in California’s frigid breakers, Todd Copeland, a design guru at the Patagonia clothing company, concluded that wet suits weren’t cutting it. Sure, a traditional Neoprene suit could keep him warm, but the suit’s material could be synthesised only from non-renewable, energy-intensive resources such as petroleum or kiln-baked limestone.

In spring 2008, Copeland blogged about the need for a truly green alternative. And, later that summer, his cry found its way to Yulex, an Arizona-based company working to resurrect a low-energy, low-toxin recipe for rubber from guayule, a desert shrub native to North America. Research on the plant peaked during the second world war but was then was shelved. Yulex had restarted the work around 2000 and was making hypo-allergenic surgical gloves, but was seeking a new market. It saw Copeland’s post, and soon its reps came knocking.

Yulex’s efforts are set to pay off later this fall, when Patagonia releases a full wetsuit made from a 60:40 blend of guayule and conventional Neoprene, five years after Copeland initiated the search. “We hope to get that to 100% [guayule], but it takes time to learn a new material,” says Copeland, now Patagonia’s environmental product specialist.

This serendipitous match between designer and material maker is, unfortunately, a rare exception. Speaking to Copeland recently, I wondered how many misses Patagonia has evaluated for every successful innovation, such as Yulex, it brings to market. “100? Probably more,” he speculated. “And many, many more don’t even make it that far.”

The tale of Patagonia’s eco-wetsuit offers a parable of the larger challenge facing green materials on the path from lab to market. The process remains a maze that few materials survive. But a recent survey of design leaders reveals that while eco-materials still face a tougher journey than their conventional counterparts, the process of green technology transfer is gaining momentum.

Sales of green materials are surging

Though spotty, statistics on green materials markets are all pointing up. The building industry is one of the largest shifting towards lower-impact practices. In the US, the green construction market is worth roughly $100bn, a ten-fold rise since 2006, according to the 2013 Dodge Construction Green Outlook. As a share, green construction now accounts for 44% of total US commerical and institutional construction, up from near zero a decade ago.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that big corporations are deepening their commitment to these priorities, as well. In 2006, Du Pont set out to double sales of products made from “non-depletable resources” to $8bn by 2015. The US chemicals giant blew by that mark four years early, racking up $10bn in green-materials revenue in 2011 (most recent data).

Green adoption has been accelerating at Ford, too. A decade ago, engineers at the No2 US automaker were skeptical of the cost and performance benefits of alternatives. Today, following a flurry of successful material substitutions, design engineers are required to evaluate and opt for green candidates where they equal or exceed conventional materials.

Sustained internal commitment is vital

Ford’s shift didn’t come quickly. “We were kicked out of conference rooms,” laughs Debbie Mielewski, technical leader for Plastics Research at Ford Motor Co, recalling her efforts in the early 2000s to pitch bio-based plastics to the car maker’s internal development engineers. “They saw only risk and additional cost,” she says.

But thanks to the protection of Bill Ford Jr, the company’s then CEO, Ford’s bio-plastics R&D program had the time and funding to mature new offerings to the point where today soy-based polyurethane foams are used in the seat cushions, backs, and headrests of all vehicles built in North America.

A focus on value and performance has helped reverse early skepticism. “Our goal has always been to match the price and performance of any material we’re hoping to replace,” she says.

To cultivate and scale production of new materials, suppliers will need help

Internal approval of new green materials isn’t always enough.

For strong, smooth plastics used to make bins and liners, Ford has successfully replaced glass fibres with wheat straw – the fibrous waste left when wheat is harvested – to reinforce the plastic.

Yet as Mielewski points out, ensuring consistency of the straw’s strength posed a new challenge, as did ensuring uniform size of the material, which must be milled into identical short lengths to be blended into plastic. “In Canada, wheat straw used to be burned,” she says.

To change that practice, Ford collaborated with farmers and third-tier suppliers to develop a supply chain to recover, test and standardise the processed straw. Without Ford’s commitment to the end product, the investment wouldn’t have happened, says Mielewski: “A third-tier supplier had to invest in and build a mill to meet our demand. That takes real confidence.”

Recovering waste takes patient, innovative collaboration with vendors early on

As its commitment to recover and re-use waste carpet materials started to take root in the 1990s, Atlanta-based Interface, a $1bn-per-year manufacturer of carpet tiles used primarily in commercial spaces, recognised it could push this goal only as quickly as a key fibre supplier, Italy’s Aquafil, was able to develop and scale-up processes to harvest fibers from recovered carpets and to then re-melt them for use in new carpeting.

“This was more of us pushing [recycled materials],” by Interface, “rather than a pull” from the market, says Nigel Stansfield, Interface’s vice president and chief innovations officer. “We had to overcome a perception that recycled was more costly, or performed less well.”

Interface also faced a reverse logistics challenge: it had to work with existing and new partners to learn how to capture and truck tons of carpet back to its partner plants. “To make this work, we’ve had to focus on all parts of the product’s life cycle at once,” Stansfield says.

At the installation phase, for example, this has meant educating flooring installers to abandon long-standing practices of gluing carpets down, which damages the material at the later recovery stage. Interface instead relies on gravity and strong adhesive patches to link its carpet tiles and keep them carpets locked down.

And at the end-of-use stage, the move has meant developing reverse logistics flows, to steer carpet waste away from landfills, and back to re-processors such as Aquafil.

Vetting green materials remains a weak link

Designers are widely frustrated by a lack of consistent, reliable services that can authenticate green materials’ virtues. The industry needs a “greenwash monitor,” Patagonia’s Copeland says. There has been some movement toward this goal, with efforts including Nike’s MAKING app, Material ConneXion, and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Green materials can fail an evaluation for many reasons. A few years ago, Patagonia became interested in bamboo-based fabrics. The cultivation of fast-growing bamboo was appealing as a sustainable raw material. But on deeper investigation, Patagonia passed on the new fabrics because the process to convert bamboo into fibres proved just as toxic as the standard viscose method.

Likewise, PLA, a bio-plastic made from corn sugar, has attracted interest both as a renewable resource and because the end product is biodegradable. But in a car’s cockpit, durability is paramount, and Ford found that in tests, the stuff didn’t hold up. PLA plastics would “begin to compost in the car,” Mielewski says.

Resist the bias toward replacing old with green

“Most clients think that sustainable design is simply a case of switching existing material for a greener option,” says Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at Seymourpowell, a London-based design advisor. “Same product, new material: that’s wrong on many grounds.”

Sherwin argues that its critical to understand that the stuff from which a product is made often accounts for only a tiny fraction of the impact of the use-phase of a product’s lifetime. Hence, it’s smarter for laundry soap makers to improve the performance of their detergents in cold water rather than focus solely on revising packaging.

“We should start with more fundamental product redesign,” Sherwin says. “We must start by asking, how will the consumers’ needs best be satisfied, and design accordingly.”

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