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Designing for sustainability: what are the challenges behind green materials?


Bamboo was appealing as a sustainable material but the process to convert it into fibres proved just as toxic as the standard viscose method. Photograph: Chiang Ying-Ying/AP


Powered by article titled “Designing for sustainability: what are the challenges behind green materials?” was written by Adam Aston, for on Wednesday 27th November 2013 15.00 UTC

Learning to surf in California’s frigid breakers, Todd Copeland, a design guru at the Patagonia clothing company, concluded that wet suits weren’t cutting it. Sure, a traditional Neoprene suit could keep him warm, but the suit’s material could be synthesised only from non-renewable, energy-intensive resources such as petroleum or kiln-baked limestone.

In spring 2008, Copeland blogged about the need for a truly green alternative. And, later that summer, his cry found its way to Yulex, an Arizona-based company working to resurrect a low-energy, low-toxin recipe for rubber from guayule, a desert shrub native to North America. Research on the plant peaked during the second world war but was then was shelved. Yulex had restarted the work around 2000 and was making hypo-allergenic surgical gloves, but was seeking a new market. It saw Copeland’s post, and soon its reps came knocking.

Yulex’s efforts are set to pay off later this fall, when Patagonia releases a full wetsuit made from a 60:40 blend of guayule and conventional Neoprene, five years after Copeland initiated the search. “We hope to get that to 100% [guayule], but it takes time to learn a new material,” says Copeland, now Patagonia’s environmental product specialist.

This serendipitous match between designer and material maker is, unfortunately, a rare exception. Speaking to Copeland recently, I wondered how many misses Patagonia has evaluated for every successful innovation, such as Yulex, it brings to market. “100? Probably more,” he speculated. “And many, many more don’t even make it that far.”

The tale of Patagonia’s eco-wetsuit offers a parable of the larger challenge facing green materials on the path from lab to market. The process remains a maze that few materials survive. But a recent survey of design leaders reveals that while eco-materials still face a tougher journey than their conventional counterparts, the process of green technology transfer is gaining momentum.

Sales of green materials are surging

Though spotty, statistics on green materials markets are all pointing up. The building industry is one of the largest shifting towards lower-impact practices. In the US, the green construction market is worth roughly $100bn, a ten-fold rise since 2006, according to the 2013 Dodge Construction Green Outlook. As a share, green construction now accounts for 44% of total US commercial and institutional construction, up from near zero a decade ago.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that big corporations are deepening their commitment to these priorities, as well. In 2006, Du Pont set out to double sales of products made from “non-depletable resources” to $8bn by 2015. The US chemicals giant blew by that mark four years early, racking up $10bn in green materials revenue in 2011 (most recent data).

Green adoption has been accelerating at Ford, too. A decade ago, engineers at the No2 US automaker were skeptical of the cost and performance benefits of alternatives. Today, following a flurry of successful material substitutions, design engineers are required to evaluate and opt for green candidates where they equal or exceed conventional materials.

Sustained internal commitment is vital

Ford’s shift didn’t come quickly. “We were kicked out of conference rooms,” laughs Debbie Mielewski, technical leader for Plastics Research at Ford Motor Co, recalling her efforts in the early 2000s to pitch bio-based plastics to the car maker’s internal development engineers. “They saw only risk and additional cost,” she says.

But thanks to the protection of Bill Ford Jr, the company’s then CEO, Ford’s bio-plastics R&D program had the time and funding to mature new offerings to the point where today soy-based polyurethane foams are used in the seat cushions, backs, and headrests of all vehicles built in North America.

A focus on value and performance has helped reverse early skepticism. “Our goal has always been to match the price and performance of any material we’re hoping to replace,” she says.

To cultivate and scale production of new materials, suppliers will need help

Internal approval of new green materials isn’t always enough.

For strong, smooth plastics used to make bins and liners, Ford has successfully replaced glass fibres with wheat straw – the fibrous waste left when wheat is harvested – to reinforce the plastic.


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