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Chris Sherwin, sustainability director at Seymourpowell

Clean-up act: Chris Sherwin intends to build sustainability into as many of the company’s design processes as possible

For many of our more traditional engineering and design companies, the notion of employing  a sustainability guru probably conjures  up images of some insufferable character floating around in a hemp sack, vaguely encouraging everyone to ‘go green’.  At best, an annoying PR exercise with no real mandate; at worst, a costly distraction and profit drain.

Of course, that view  is very quickly becoming outdated, and many companies have already woken up to the reality that sustainability presents a real economic opportunity, as well as being an important consideration for any socially responsible business.

BMW’s DesignworksUSA division and design and innovation company  IDEO both have in-house sustainability tsars, and many others companies employ outsourced expertise.

At the beginning of this  year, one of the UK’s most  prolific design consultancies, Seymourpowell made a  key signing in Chris Sherwin  as head of sustainability, with  not inconsiderable clout in terms of driving change.

Pure and simple

Pure and simple: Strauss Water’s filtration system operates without UV lamps

It’s noteworthy that design companies are taking the lead here, largely in acknowledgment of the fact that some 80 per cent  of impact of the final product is determined at the initial design stage — better to factor in sustainability from the outset  than tack it on later as a  corrective measure.

‘Our long-term vision is to  get sustainability as a factor in everything we do,’ said Sherwin. ‘When we take on a project, running a standard innovation and design process, we lead with one or two issues but consider dozens of different ones — such as can we use an existing manufacturing line? Is it safe? Is it great for people to use? There is a growing recognition that what we want  to do is have sustainability as one of the those issues we consider  as part of the overall mix of what good design and engineering is.’

When we take on a project, we lead with one of two issues but consider dozens of different ones

Since the bulk of the work  that Seymourpowell does is in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) and packaging, this is how sustainability is addressed  for the main part, on the periphery.

For example, Sherwin cites Marks & Spencer’s recent new pack development, which it claims will extend the life of fruit stored in the fridge by up to two days and, as a result, reduce food waste.

The company also worked on an advanced domestic drinking water appliance for Israeli company Strauss Water.

Strauss Water utilises  a gravity-based filtration system that is designed to remove impurities while keeping healthy minerals without  the need for ultraviolet  (UV) lamps.

Seymourpowell had to design for Strauss Water’s advanced cooling and heating technology to be contained in a compact design with a low-carbon footprint.  This technology allows water  to be cooled to 6ºC and heated  up to 96ºC rapidly.

It’s utterly bonkers the way that we market new products, where better product equals better wattage

‘The second bit of the long-term vision is where projects  will be sustainability driven, explained Sherwin.

Less is more

Less is more: G-Tech’s cordless vacuum cleaner offers good performance using just 100w of power

‘The purpose of the design  will be about somehow tackling some kind of sustainability issue, innovating around waste or low-carbon technologies or longer-lasting products.’

One of Seymourpowell’s clients is a company called G-Tech, which designs sweepers and vacuum cleaners. It found that many modern vacuum cleaners  in the market used upwards of 2,000W of suction. However, tests in the 1940s by Hoover showed good performance with just 250W using a reasonable brush bar.

‘It’s utterly bonkers the  way that we market and sell  new products, where better performance and better product equals better wattage or more power,’ said Sherwin.

‘We are delivering levels of performance that are way beyond what people actually need,’ he added. ‘Quite a lot of engineers working inside organisations  have got the skills and ideas  to deliver better efficiency, but there’s not always the will from the market’.

The result was a 100W cordless vacuum cleaner with  a 22.2V direct-current motor, which powers the brush bars  and also drives a fan to compress the dirt into bales. In tests, it  was equivalent to exiting more powerful (and more energy-intensive) models.

Building on this sustainability-driven consumer technology, Seymourpowell also has  plans to get more involved directly with clean technology.

‘Essentially, it’s  a bunch of inventors  with some amazing  kit who’ve now got  to commercialise it and turn it into the next generation of viable products,’ said Sherwin. ‘I find it incredibly exciting to look at the stuff that’s coming out of the clean-tech revolution — things such as hydrogen fuel-cell technology that we’re going to substitute our boilers for.

‘That is an emerging sector that is growing rapidly, between six and eight per cent every year, and there are massive design opportunities in that and it won’t be the same as the existing corporates [client base]; it will  be much more like working with medium-sized enterprises.’

Chris Sherwin

Chris Sherwin

Chris Sherwin
Head of sustainability, Seymourpowell

Career and education
2012
Head of sustainability, Seymourpowell
2007 Sustainability consultant, Dragon Rouge London (clients included Akzo Nobel, ICI Paints, SABMiller, eBay, Sony, Cafédirect, Good Earth, Ahlstrom and SCA/Tork)
2006 Head of innovation at think-tank Forum for the Future
2000 Ecodesign and sustainability consultant, Philips Environmental Services, Philips Electronics
1997 Ecodesign researcher/consultant, Electrolux Industrial Design Centre
1997 PhD, Innovative Ecodesign, Cranfield University

Q&A

We’re in the depths of a double-dip recession. Will consumers and manufacturers really care about sustainability? People tend to talk  about different waves of the sustainability movement, with us now in the fourth wave.  In previous waves, what’s happened is that, when we’ve hit a recession, business and government sustainability commitments  have completely fallen by the wayside. That happened in the ‘89–‘92 recession; we had  a bunch of green products that were inferior  in quality, didn’t perform and cost more,  and then we hit the recession, everybody stopped buying them and companies  stopped making them.

In this recession, what’s happened is that companies have already locked sustainability into their business processes and into  their innovation processes in a much more systematic way. Of course, some of it’s fallen away now, and I would argue that’s probably the flaky, greenwash stuff, and good riddance  I say. In a way, it’s been a good process of natural selection that the stuff we’re left with is the stuff that’s of value to business.

How do you get sustainability on the agenda for every project? The reality is it’s going to take some time from where we are today, which is sustainability in some projects but not all.

In some cases, clients aren’t putting it there, and we’ll face a little bit of a battle — or we’ll do it and won’t tell them.

There are definitely some sectors where it doesn’t make any sense to do sustainability projects — say eco-designed bullets. It’s just not the right project to be working on. But where we are at the moment is, rather than turning work away, we’re trying to influence our clients. When they’re not specifying it, we’re trying to do a bit of demand creation — so we’re trying to show them either the  size of the opportunity here or if you’re an electronic company, for example, have a look  at what GE and Phillips are doing on this stuff. Shouldn’t you be at the races?

Clearly you’re new to the role. How do you go about affecting change without stepping on any toes? Seymourpowell is  27 years old and has an established way of doing design and innovation, and we’ve got processes that we use and methodologies we apply to things.

What I’m desperately trying not to do is  to invent a new method. I’m trying to build sustainability as much as possible into the existing ways we work, rather than coming  in and saying you’ve got to use a lifecycle assessment tool or you’ve got to use cradle- to-cradle thinking.


Readers' comments (1)

  • Great interview, thank you. The introduction is very funny and perfectly descriptive of why there is such little progress in making sustainability a serious and consequential concept.

    Fortunately, some engineers solved the annoying "green pestering" problem by taking the hemp sack from the naive, no-impact person and put it in a bio-composite EV (Motive, Canada).

    I agree and support Chris' approach of attaching sustainability to existing business processes and culture, as the best strategy for adoption and promotion. People will want to know more once they have entered in the sustainability territory: what is LCA, it is a better tool for design and manufacturing, is it something I should be curious about just to get myself out of a long and boring routine, will the younger engineers who are taught LCA have an advantage over old CAD expertise, etc?

    I see two major problems in the adoption and practice of sustainability by industry. Solving them would be the most effective way of combating green-washing or the dilution of sustainability from its 3-dimensional (economic, social, natural), systemic, long-term, planetary aspect to a PR exercise.

    1. The lack of definitions and standards, which leads to a lack of clear, reliable, universally accepted performance measures.

    2. Engineers almost exclusive preoccupation with the technical aspect of products or processes, deferring all other decisions to other business functions, from the hemp sack guy in charge with touting some feeble green accomplishments to finance, who will not measure and not report sustainability unless it is required. I would like to see engineers have the courage and knowledge to say: based on my design and the full-costing of it, my product has to be made using this production process, this material and this supplier, with well-qualified, fairly-paid employees, located no further than x km from customer use, shipped by this freighter

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