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June 23, 2011

This year at Dwell on Design we're collaborating with our pals over at the excellent American Public Media radio show Marketplace. Reporter Eve Troeh on Marketplace's Sustainability Desk will lead two panels that get to the heart of the economics of green design. Her conversations range from virtuous consumption to how to navigate the matrix of rebates and credits for going green and she'll be on the Sustainability Stage on Saturday from 1:00-2:00. I put a few questions about how consumers react when they encounter sustainability in the marketplace.

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Eve Color

Can you give us a quick preview of the two panels you'll be doing at Dwell on Design this year?
The first panel is about understanding sustainability from a product designer’s point of view. We have a consumer guide that cuts through the forest of green labels and certifications to simply say “buy this/not that.” We’ll hear from a rising L.A. design star who sees a lack of “green” choices in the gulf between Ikea and a $10,000 custom sustainable sofa. How can we fill that gap? Then we go to the other end of the spectrum, and hear from Hewlett Packard about how you design sustainability into something that gets obsolete every few years: your laptop.
And the second?
My second panel is for the home improvement crowd – the thrifty, the green, and the aesthetes. We might think of the greenest homes as looking like spaceships planted on mountaintops. But a green community can mean retrofitting more historic homes in old neighborhoods. We’ll show off the super-efficient remodel of a Greene and Greene bungalow. It’s gorgeous! We’ll also run down tax breaks, and which “green” investments you should make, in what order. Hint: solar panels are not the first step.
A lot of people's worries around green design have to do with cost. Are people particularly price sensitive in this realm? Or do you find it mostly jibes with consumer's general reflexes around cost?
Well, companies are sensitive about consumers being sensitive, if that makes sense. Lots of surveys show that we say we want sustainable stuff, but when we get out there in the marketplace we go for price. Companies have been let down by spending time and money to add a green line to their offerings, only to see lackluster sales. Now for companies that are only in the green space, they aren’t comparing “regular” profits to “green” profits, so their calculation of risk is much different. When it’s perceived as an issue of consumer health, like toxics in paint or drywall, people are more willing to pay a premium for green, and we’re seeing more of a market for those products all the time. And green does have status surrounding it; it’s definitely chic to be green. But it’s a very small percentage of people who are willing to pay more across the board, in all areas of their lives, for green goods.
Do you think green design really is more costly? To what degree is that just a perception? Or maybe it's totally accurate.
Plenty of companies want us to see road to green as paved with consumerism. But why buy a bamboo cutlery set with a cloth wrapper sewn by village artisans…when you can just wash and reuse that plastic fork that came with your pad woon sen? It completely depends on how you define green. Some things do cost more, and should. Upholstery made from cotton that’s grown organically at a farm which pays livable wages – that will cost more. And that creates jobs and promotes a sustainable economy. But “green” can also mean simplicity. Buying vintage, buying secondhand, is always green. “Upcycled” products, with used leather or reclaimed wood, can reduce materials costs. However, it’s hard to mass-produce things with found or reclaimed materials, so you pay a premium for craftsmanship. Green is also about value, about buying timeless, durable goods that will look great for decades, and that can be fixed or cleaned to keep them going. You know that Michael Pollen mantra? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Well, let’s work on a similar definition for the home: “Get stuff. Not too much. As durable and attractive as possible.” Or something. I’m open to suggestions!
What about when rebates and credits are in play? How do people really react to those? Do longterm incentives really have much of an effect?
A lot of the rebates and credits work on a large scale. Maybe one homeowner on a block will buy a new, efficient water heater this year instead of waiting for next year, because there’s a rebate. But where the rebates really have punch is, say, getting the owners of big apartment buildings to buy 500 water-efficient toilets, or a million yards of carpet made with post-consumer fiber. The rebates reduce the cost difference between traditional products and green ones, so they do have a big impact on getting green products to market faster. Cities or states offer the rebates in hopes of meeting larger goals for reducing energy use, water use or pollution. We don’t really know if the incentives work long-term, though, because they’re so subject to change! As political winds blow, and budgets shrink, green initiatives fall to the wayside in many places. Even though they’d save energy, water and money in the long-term, budgets are so tight governments are saying they can’t afford to invest in that savings.
Any folk trying to make a buck (instead of saving one) off these rebate and incentive systems?
Rebates are creating an investing environment. Solar leases are available in many states with solar panel rebates. Customers don’t buy the panels, they lease them from a company like Sungevity or Solar City. The company gets the tax rebate, but the overall cost to the customer is still far less outright purchase. It’s interesting stuff.
How far off do you think we are from hitting a point of equilibrium between cost of green design and a general will on the part of the consumer to be greener?
I think consumers are willing and interested in green choices, but it goes against behavioral evidence to think the majority of us will pay more if the only benefit is a warm fuzzy feeling. There has to be some other element in play, like a lower power bill with CFL bulbs, or solar panel leases, or saving on gas with a hybrid car. People need some rationale mixed in with their emotional response to justify a purchase. Take a story I did on a new toilet paper with no cardboard tube in the middle. The company was really pushing the tree-saving aspect of it. But they could also sell it as a time-saving convenience. No tube means one less thing to throw away (or recycle!), and that’s worth some extra cost. I believe we’re headed toward a space where green design is synonymous with good design. It’s good for the company because it’s made with the most efficient use of resources and materials. It saves them money. And it’s good for consumers because it means quality. That saves them money, in the long term.  I think we’re very very far away from that, though. Green is a growing niche, but still a smaller one than most of us in the public radio and Dwell worlds probably think it is, especially on a global scale.

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