Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Green designs that don't cost the Earth

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
  • New design exhibition showcases sustainable design projects from around the world
  • Eclectic collection includes projects by architect Renzo Piano and designer Yves Behar
  • Visitors encouraged to examine their own environmental footprint with interactive exhibits
  • Business is beginning to understand benefits of green strategy, says UK designer

London, England (CNN) -- Eco-designers are fond of showing us how the future might look but are often guilty of luxuriating in form at the expense of function.

Happily, "Sustainable Futures," a new exhibition at the London's Design Museum has steered clear of green frippery favoring instead to focus its attention on a clutch of projects that not only look good, but do good too.

From models of Curitiba in Brazil -- an environmental role model where recycling and efficient transport were established decades ago -- to Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates which is scheduled to be completed in 2016 and is being touted as the world's first zero-carbon city, a range of city building projects are showcased.

They include Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco which opened in 2008.

"It's fantastic," Nina Due, Head of Exhibitions at the Design Museum told CNN. "[Piano's] thought about where everything comes from and it's not trying to be too exotic but actually trying to be true to nature, which is admirable."


A 2.5 acre "living roof" is complimented by solar panels and its frame is constructed almost entirely from recycled steel. Even two thirds of its insulation has come from recycled blue jeans.

From here on in, the designs get smaller, but no less ambitious. Mathieu Lehanneur's Local River -- an aquarium that also grows herbs -- and Jochem Faudet's "Grow Your Own" -- a compact greenhouse -- both offer solutions to cultivating home-grown food in cramped urban environments.

UK fashion designer Christopher Raeburn's parkas are made from old military parachutes, Swiss-based architect Nicola Enrico Staubli has created foldschool (DIY cardboard furniture for kids) and visitors can also track the progress of Plastiki's voyage from San Francisco to Sydney on their boat made from plastic bottles.

But the exhibition isn't just about recycling. It also reveals how design can illuminate issues of sustainability and encourage pro-environmental behaviors.

Take the Energy AWARE clock created by Swedish designers that helps you monitor home energy consumption.

Or "Virtual Water," a wall chart which transforms arcane UNESCO data about water usage into a simple explainer about water consumption. Did you know that it takes 4500 liters of water to produce a 300 grams of beef or that the same amount of chicken breast fillet requires 1170 liters for production?

"The biggest message is that you don't have to take big steps to reduce your water usage," its designer, Berlin-based Timm Kekeritz told CNN.

Awareness of carbon footprints is also the aim of"Changing Habbits," -- a novel take on the traditional online carbon calculator.

Its co-creator Rob Holdway, director of a UK-based eco-design consultancy Giraffe Innovation told CNN: "It's looking at pro-environmental behaviors and getting people to relate their own micro actions to the macro planetary levels of the climate change agenda."

For Holdway, who trained as an industrial designer, the project dovetails neatly with his day-to-day work helping retailers, airlines, fashion brands and defense companies achieve what he calls "carbon-led redesigns" of their products and processes.

Holdway set up the company on 2001 and insists on taking a scientific, evidence-based approach to all the work he does for clients. He and his team of scientists and management staff forensically inspect every aspect of a product from materials, to transport right through to potential end of life impacts.

"We've just evaluated 21 different types of material from around the world for a new bag design which fits in with a company's new brand principles. This is a very powerful story -- taking an operational efficiency angle and then moving it into how people design their products," Holdway said.

His enthusiasm for his subject shines through and it's not long before he's explaining how he's helping another of his clients design packaging that can change people's behavior.

The details of the project for a "major UK retailer" are confidential but the packaging, he says, helps reduce the amount of meat waste that people generate.

"Packaging is important," he concedes, "but nowhere near as important as the amount of meat people throw away."

Despite the perception of big business being environmentally profligate, the opposite is increasingly true. Holdway says the very fact that his business exists is testament to this.

"[Businesses] want to be more competitive, they want market advantage, reduce costs, improve their brand," he said.

Take German sportswear company Puma, who are also sponsoring "Sustainable Futures." Enlisting the help of industrial designer Yves Behar, they have come up with the "Clever Little Bag" which is spearheading a company-wide drive to cut packaging waste.

The train operator Eurostar is another trying to capitalize on sustainability issues with their train manager's bags made from decommissioned staff uniforms designed by UK-upcycler Worn Again.

Not only is big business tapping into environmental issues "as a way of leaving a better legacy" but also "as an opportunity for creativity," Holdway said.

He's keen that designers grasp the opportunity to get involved creatively at the early stages of product development instead of being hired further down the line to "articulate a spec that has already been written."

But they have a long way to go, he said.

"Many designers are so far behind the game in thinking about sustainability. I think it's been a massive omission from design education for years," he said.

"Designers don't just need to understand the environment; they need to understand business strategy. It's crucial," he said.

Any budding design student who thinks their education is lacking should make a beeline for the Design Museum before September to explore some of design's best examples of sustainability.