Designs for life?

In the next few weeks, two different sets of awards will celebrate innovation in sustainable engineering. But do what do these industry events really achieve?

Sustainable goods are big business. The global market for environmental goods and services is now worth $335bn, and an increasing number of manufacturers, from car firms to mobile phone makers, are falling over themselves to take advantage of this growing demand.

Over the next few weeks both the Design Museum and the Engineering Council will announce the winners of their annual competitions to reward sustainable design and environmental best practice, offering cash prizes of £40,000 and £5,000 respectively for the winners.

The Design Museum’s shortlisted entries are on display in a special exhibition at the museum. But do these awards achieve anything, or are they simply congratulatory backslapping by designers – or, worse, a dubious route for companies to gain a false sheen of environmental credibility?

Some question whether environmental awards actually promote sustainability in engineering design. Awards risk becoming a beauty contest for products that simply appear ‘green’, says Dr Tracey Bhamra, lecturer in manufacturing sustainability and design at Cranfield University: ‘The Design Museum tends to pick a product that looks like a green product, so people see it and think it’s environmentally friendly.’

In contrast, environmental awards from a body such as the Engineering Council will tend to go for a technical fix, rather than asking whether we need the product in the first place, she says. ‘People need to think why they are running these awards – if it’s just to get people to think about sustainability then fine, but if it’s to encourage best practice then I do not think it will necessarily work.’

Dr Eric Kentley, curator at the Design Museum, denies its awards are about looks rather than substance. The judging panel considers the total life-cycle of a product, including its manufacture, he says. ‘We will be looking at the use of water and energy, and how the product is disposed of – it’s far from a traditional design competition.’

The awards are an attempt to get away from the idea that sustainability is purely a ‘green’ issue, says Kentley. Last year’s entrants included IBM and BMW. This year’s finalists include Honda’s Insight hybrid internal combustion/electric powered car, whose fuel consumption is roughly half that of a conventional vehicle, and which has the lowest carbon dioxide emissions of any commercially available car.

The Motorola V2288 mobile phone, also shortlisted, was developed to find out whether consumers are interested in environmentally friendly phones. The handset has a recycled plastic case made from reprocessed compact discs. The internal circuitry uses a bromium-free printed circuit board and lead-free solder, and has an energy-efficient charger.

‘Honda has put the hybrid car into production, while Motorola re-engineered its product to produce it in a sustainable fashion. There are a lot of big players getting interested,’ says Kentley.

Awards can encourage best practice, says Mike Childs, campaigns director at Friends of the Earth, though they are not the single most powerful motivating force. There are other factors, from regulation and fiscal incentives to competition – but awards do have a role to play.

To be successful, awards have to promote improvement, rather than rewarding the best of a bad lot, says Childs.

Environmental concerns can be seen as window-dressing that companies add on to a product as an afterthought, such as recycled packaging, simply to appear ‘green’. But Hannah Reynolds, executive for safety, health and the environment at the Engineering Council, says the organisation’s awards aim to persuade firms that developing a greater environmental awareness is sound business sense. ‘Best practice in sustainability is actually profitable, because all the final entries are financially viable as well as environmentally sound.’

Finalists in the Engineering Council Environment award include Solar Century, selected for a project to install solar photovoltaic roof tiles on a housing development in north London, and First Renewables, for its Arable Biomass Renewable Energy Project. This power plant in North Yorkshire generates 10MW of electricity, fuelled by sustainable woodland.

Some companies may wish to associate themselves with awards of this kind to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, and Reynolds says the organisers have had to turn down companies in the past whose ethical stance was unacceptable.

The Engineering Council’s awards are this year sponsored by Rolls-Royce and British Energy, while the Design Museum’s competition is supported by Corus. Are these the right kind of companies to sponsor environmental awards?

Reynolds thinks so. She argues the aviation and energy industries are not going to disappear, so it is important to get them to clean up their act as much as possible, rather than berating them for their mere existence.

‘We haven’t got a problem with what these firms have done. They are engineering companies that have environmental problems, they are facing them and working to improve.’