In 2004, following my final year project at university, I launched the first comprehensive online guide to sustainable design at www.espdesign.org. Sustainable design was a hot topic at the time and universities were brimming with design students like me, eager to use design to create a sustainable future.
Initially, ESP Design stood for Environmentally Sustainable Product Design and soon evolved into Entirely Sustainable Product Design, a slightly awkward rebrand that embraced the triple bottom line principle of people, planet, and profit. The website included information on sustainable design strategies, regulations, certifications and design tools. It was a well used resource within the community and went through a few iterations with contributors including our friends at Wax RDC, but the sustainable design craze sadly lost momentum after a few years and as I was not working in the physical product space any more and no longer had volunteers to help maintain it, I eventually made the decision to take it offline.
So why have we brought it back to life now?
It was actually Vineeta who put it back online recently, feeling that sustainability is now more important than it has ever been and that it is arguably becoming more relevant, even if the site is a bit out of date. Essentially, if even one person finds it useful and makes positive design decisions as a result then it is worth having it online. Rather than feeling guilty that the content hasn’t been updated in a long time, we should value the fact that it existed in the first place and preserve it for anyone who may find it useful or interesting. It’s been a good opportunity to look back nostalgically and to reflect on how things have changed.
How far have we come since 2004?
In terms of physical product design, things arguably haven’t really changed that much, which is disappointing. A lot of strategies being proposed at the time are still what would be recommended today and although many of the strategies are used here and there in large scale industry, they are rarely implemented in a way that actually challenges the fundamental unsustainability of our consumption. Product service systems were the flavour of the day in the mid-2000’s and never really caught on in the way that was imagined, but digital transformation has taken the idea in a new direction with services such as Spotify, Netflix and the rise of ride sharing services and autonomous vehicles. While much of this has clearly added value to the consumer and some parts of society and the economy, it is debatable whether it has had a positive or negative impact on the environment. The concepts of cyclic design and cradle-to-cradle have been joined by other terms such as the circular economy but few companies have truly embraced or understood the necessity to close the loop on our use of the earths resources.
In terms of business, the Loremo project featured on the homepage of ESP Design sadly died but it is fantastic to see that other companies that were pioneering sustainable design back then have flourished, with the likes of Patagonia, Ecover, Freitag, Interface and Telsa being stronger than ever and inspiring a new generation of environmentally and socially conscious businesses.
The biggest progress has probably been in the rise of clean technology. Energy efficiency of household goods such as lighting, TVs, and computers has improved massively and renewable energy has boomed despite the efforts of some governments (not naming any names) to get in the way, plus the electrification of transport is finally reaching a tipping point after a hundred years of struggle.
Then of course, there’s the internet. Product design had a totally different meaning 14 years ago and discussion on sustainable design was almost entirely focused on physical goods and more traditional services. Few people had imagined how digital products and services would come to dominate our everyday lives. Sure, there was some talk about smart, connected products and about de-materialisation of physical goods and services, but few had foreseen the true pace and scale of change that the internet would bring, nor had they foreseen the enormous energy consumption and carbon emissions that would result from our new addiction to data. The fact that ESP Design was the first significant online resource in its field and that nearly all the information at the time was in books, magazines and conference papers, plus the fact that its content made almost no reference to the web whatsoever, shows us just how much things have changed in a relatively short space of time.
It is also really interesting to see how this website performs in terms of efficiency compared to most modern websites. Despite no effort having been made to optimise it whatsoever, it ranks better than 88% of websites tested in our carbon calculator at just 0.35grams of CO2 per page view with a homepage size of just 345kb. For transparency, the version that we have put online is actually not the original version (which would no doubt be even more efficient), but is the latest version from 2009. Sure, it isn’t fancy and its not responsive but it is easy to read, looks fairly presentable and even has an image slider. It serves as a good case study to highlight how bloated modern websites have become.
What’s the future for ESP Design?
We’re going to keep ESPDesign online as an educational archive. We won’t be editing the content or adding to it although we are totally open to collaboration with anyone that wants to assist in bringing the content up to date. If that doesn’t happen, it will hopefully just be an interesting and useful reference for anybody interested in the topic.
Meanwhile, we’re going to push forward in learning, collaborating, and sharing our experience in sustainable design for the digital world that we now inhabit and hope that we can make a difference in this important space.