A ride on the green rollercoaster

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Following the most recent Global Environment Outlook report, GEO-5, Chris Sherwin felt thoroughly depressed but a look at some green innovations has made him realise that the glass is indeed half full

A percentage of my time is always spent on the look out for interesting and imaginative new green innovations, as is standard practice in most design consultancies.

A side benefit of tracking trends in sustainability in particular is in giving a real sense of the progress we are making in this area. It can be a bit of a green rollercoaster, but the peaks help instil a sense of optimism and hope to counter any growing cynicism.

Two parallel, but connected events really brought this home this summer.

The catalyst for all this was the depressingly ineffectual Rio +20 Summit — a majorly significant international pow-wow to agree the politics of sustainability, which failed to deliver.

What hit me hardest was the publication of the United Nation’s preevent report Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), giving a health check on the state of the planet.

Showing progress made against a series of 90 critically important universal indicators, this report made for seriously bleak reading.


Significant progress has been made on only four indicators (lead free petrol and ozone depletion among them). Some progress was shown in 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as National Parks and efforts to reduce deforestation. But there is little or no progress detected for 24 others — including climate change, fish stocks, desertification and drought.

Further deterioration was posted for eight goals like the state of the world’s coral reefs.

On the one hand, the health of the planet looks increasingly rocky, on the other, this is unleashing a wave of creativity, innovation and great design that leaves me feeling excited and more optimistic

After telling me not to be so depressing and apocalyptic, my design colleagues remind me that it is hard to see any causal link between such high-level, global indicators like desertification and the products they are working on in the design studio.

Other than that we might indirectly increase (pollution, waste or toxic emissions from our innovations) or decrease them (low-carbon innovation). Yet I find all this pretty terrifying.

In parallel though, we were asked by a client to create a best practice showcase for sustainable design featuring the best of how designers are tackling sustainability. This was obviously much more fun and up-beat, but I did find these two oblique things coming together.

On the one hand, the health of the planet looks increasingly rocky, on the other, this is unleashing a wave of creativity, innovation and great design that leaves me feeling excited and more optimistic.

I think it’s worth sharing some of these world-changing examples with you in the hope they’ll lave you excited and optimistic too. It’s probably an idea to google them, as some are best explained through image not text:


A learning thermostat for the 21st Century, NEST has been created by ex-iPod designers.

A million miles from the drab mushroomcoloured box sitting apologetically on your wall, it’s smart, beautiful and simple. It learns your behaviour and adjusts your household temperature settings to your usage patterns even switching off when you leave home or go on holiday.

Method’s ocean plastic packaging

Household cleaning brand Method recently announced intentions to tackle the rising tide of plastic waste by commercialising a packaging innovation using ten per cent plastic material collected from Pacific Ocean waste streams into their product lines from November this year.

Effectively they are ‘cleaning up everyone else’s mess’ through innovation and design.

Caterpillar reman

This is an old case we stumbled across but still worth mentioning. For more than 30 years Caterpillar has been remanufacturing and reusing components from its enormous machines.

This extends to all 6,000 components, which it collects and refurbishes in 30 locations, saving 140 million pounds of materials per year.

The company then sells refurbished and remanufactured products alongside new ones at reduced prices, having passed the same stringent safety and reliability tests.

This is a great example of design for the circular economy.


BMW i sees the global carmaker using an integrated approach to sustainable mobility, extending the brand beyond simply the physical car design.

Mobility apps, like ParkatmyHouse, can find parking spaces in city streets for you, while the Sustainable Neighbourhoods Project, a collaboration with the magazine Wallpaper*, is well worth a look.

It’s exactly the kind of systemfocussed design thinking we need for sustainability breakthroughs.

Sustainable apparel coalition

This game-changing design collaboration features 60 organisations from across the fashion, textiles and apparel value chain.

Its goal is to systematically reduce the environmental and social impacts of how the entire sector designs and manufactures products. Importantly, it features once sworn enemies, like Nike, Puma and Adidas, sitting together to change the way they design, for good.

The above represents pretty much the cutting-edge of sustainable design, innovation and research. And it also worked as a kind of antidote to Rio +20 for me.

Wondering if this is innovative enough for GEO-5, or if any of this could be deemed ‘truly’ sustainable — probably not? At best these are weak signals of how we must innovate, then massively scale up.

But these, and the next wave of great green innovations I expect to unearth over the coming months, help me remain a glass half-full-kind-of-green-guy.

Chris Sherwin draws hope from industry’s green initiatives