Designing Green Products

In 1998, I founded a company that designed and manufactured sustainable office furniture. Unfortunately, we were ahead of the green “curve,” and the marketplace was not quite ripe for sustainability.  I am both encouraged and discouraged by the new sustainability movement.  Here are three of my observations on the topic of green product design:

· Don’t try to substitute a green product exactly for a non-green one. There are lots of people who will be dissatisfied with the product because it doesn’t compare on every level to the original. Think of functionality, not replacement. A good example is the plastic lumber being used today on decks. It is being made from detergent bottle plastic. It’s actually better on many levels than wood decking, particularly when it comes to maintenance. But when they first made it, it came in lame, translucent wood tones and with fake grain. Come on! All that does is make it look like a cheap imitation. They should go a different direction and make the plastic actually look good being what it is, plastic.

· Let the grit show. People prefer green products that look green. I think it’s because it provides the green consumer with a tiny bit of proof that they went with the sustainable solution, and they want a pat on the back, but not a full-scale award.  For example, recycled paper that is pure white and looks just like standard tree-killing paper makes no obvious statement. Let it show some fibers and specks of “recycled” paper and it will be more popular to many green buyers. The Toyota Prius is a hot seller not only because it saves fuel, but because it makes a statement.  Look at me world!  I got a Hybrid! Aren’t I a great human being?

· Watch out for the green obsessed buyer. It doesn’t matter that you are offering them a product that is 50% or 90% better for the environment than their other available options; they will still grill you on every piece of the production process, every post-consumer scenario. They will site numerous uninformed statistics that condemn your attempts at designing a better product. Thank them for their quest for absolute perfection and let them know that you are in the business to make money. Making a profit is the only way a business will succeed, so your green solutions have to be marketable, both in function and in price.


Tom Heerman

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