Green design will be one of the enduring themes of 2009, or so we are told. As hard-faced as it might sound, though, it is hard to see this theme getting the attention it needs right now.
My problem with the whole concept is that it currently seems to attract a premium at just about every point in the design and supply chain, above and beyond what is truly merited by the extra functionality or physical qualities that a tool or component or board or finished product may possess. Slap on “green” and you can slap on 10%.
Companies are even encouraged to think along these lines by reputable research, such as that recently published by the Consumer Electronics Association. It said that just over a fifth of the John and Jane Qs out there would be prepared to pay 20% more on the retail price for an average flat-panel display, if it had been designed with the environment in mind.
Well, sorry, but even people from Greenpeace look at that skeptically. As Casey Harrell, one of the pressure group’s senior campaigners on electronics says, “There is always a big difference here between what people say and what they then go and do.” In other words, if you frog-marched all those people to Best Buy straight after getting their answers, would they still lay out the extra cash?
And there is another issue that goes begging here. Even if 22% of people will open their pocketbooks that wide for such goods and services, it’s not enough. Global warming, carbon footprints and related issues cannot be solved with niche products. The approach we take has to be mass-market.
Now this might sound as though I’m telling electronics companies to sacrifice margin. However, I don’t think it’s still called a “sacrifice” when you have no choice, and that is the way things are going.
President Obama has picked Steven Chu as his energy secretary, a Nobel Laureate who has made climate change the focus of his work, and who has also published and promoted some of the most disturbing research on the topic. The signal is clear—if industry won’t do something, here is a guy who will and has full executive backing.
So, unless electronics wants to face regulations that impose green thinking on its mainstream design processes, it needs to start developing those processes itself, and account for the environment in everyday products in a commercially viable way. Such a strategy will actually protect margins rather than sacrifice them to red tape and regulatory diktat.