A Debate over ‘Greenwashing’


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My debate on Greenwashing the Swiffer picked up on BusinessWeek.com Design and Innovation:

Gianfranco’s Zaccai’s column praising the Swiffer as ecofriendly sparked outrage in the blogosphere. Here, he answers questions from one skeptic on “profitable sustainability”

“Our voracious and seemingly endless appetite for more, better, bigger, and easier is leaving our planet overrun, and creating an environment that may not be able to sustain human life. As designers, are we partially responsible?” asked Gianfranco Zaccai, CEO of design consultancy Continuum, in a recent BusinessWeek.com column (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/21/07, “Matching Sustainability with Profits”).

Good designers, Zaccai argued, work with sustainability in mind, creating products that fulfill the needs of the client without sacrificing the health of the planet. To illustrate what he called “profitable sustainability,” he pointed to a product his company had worked on: the Swiffer. The Procter & Gamble (PG) cleaning system, he held, improved on the old-fashioned mop by saving millions of gallons of water, and the energy needed to heat it, not to mention preventing detergents from being dumped into the waste stream.

Two popular environmental blogs, Inhabitat (www.inhabitat.com) and Treehugger (www.treehugger.com), applauded Zaccai’s call for more sustainable product design—and rejected the Swiffer as a paragon of sustainability. “[M]ounds of these disposables will only wind up rotting in a landfill somewhere, as their toxic chemicals slowly leach into our soil and poison the water table,” argued Treehugger’s Jasmin Malik Chua. Inhabitat’s Jill Fehrenbacher and Jennifer van der Meer labeled the article “greenwashing,” an attempt to pass off an unsustainable product as ecofriendly.

Blog readers jumped on the bandwagon, most calling the Swiffer “the epitome of waste” and saying the contention that a mop and water was less environmentally friendly is laughable. A few readers dissented—one described kitting up his Swiffer with reusable cotton rags, rather than the disposable sheets. The lively debate inspired Inhabitat’s van der Meer to contact Continuum’s Zaccai and press him on the sustainability fine points. An edited Q&A, reprinted with the kind permission of Inhabitat, follows, in which the two discuss the research that went into designing the Swiffer, as well as the role of the designer in creating a more sustainable world.

In your argument about the Swiffer’s environmental impact, you cite the fact that your design uses less water, energy, and toxins than a conventional mop. How did you analyze these impacts?

The development of the Swiffer was the result of our analysis of what average American households actually do to clean their floors. We discovered—by doing a lot of research, and observation in people’s homes—that, on the average, kitchen floors are washed once a week, and that it requires a lot of hot water and detergent for washing, and then more hot water for rinsing. We further realized—just by watching a lot of people mop their floors—that people spend more time cleaning the mop than cleaning the floor.

We also discovered that most of the so-called dirt on the floor is not sticky, adhering dirt, it’s dust. And water turns out to be a particularly bad way to get rid of dust, because the dust will just float to the surface, and then settle down in the form of mud. Again, we found that out by observing and analyzing—in excruciating detail, and many times over—exactly what happens when someone mops the kitchen floor.

We also learned that almost no one enjoys washing the floor and touching a dirty mop. Probably anyone could have told you that, but we verified it, and, instead of ignoring it because it was so obvious, we really paid attention to it because it was so universal. This is key to what I’m trying to say: Water, and energy, and chemicals, and all that, are essential to analyzing this activity for its environmental impact. But so are frustration, and boredom, and house-pride, and resentment of spouses who never do the mopping. Because those are the keys to designing a solution that is profitably sustainable, because it is something people will willingly—even joyfully—do.

We put all of this information together and proposed that a single sheet of paper could entrap dust—since dust was most of the problem—by means of an electrostatic process, and by modulating the surfaces of the sheet to increase entrapment. Basically, these two processes replace the water, the chemicals in the detergent, the time and back strain associated with filling buckets, and the energy needed to heat the water. And that became the Swiffer.

Of course the Swiffer has some environmental impact. That single sheet of paper goes into the trash. But compared with the many gallons of hot water and detergent used in the old system, this is obviously a lot better. Of course, we also created the Swiffer WetJet, which uses a spray of cleaning agent to spot-clean caked-on dirt, if and when necessary. But we believe that, even here, the total impact of energy consumption and chemicals in the waste stream is better.

By addressing both the technology, and the users’ desires, we helped to create a sustainable solution, one which provided value to both the producer and the consumer, while reducing the total impact on the environment. And we’re not kidding ourselves that replacing mops with Swiffers is what’s going to turn global warming around. We worked hard to come up with a profitably sustainable solution, rather than a profitable but more harmful solution. If we can do that every time, and if most other designers are doing that every time, whether they are designing jumbo jets or SpongeBob toys, that will help turn global warming around.

As a designer, how much impact do you have on the materials used in manufacturing what you have designed? Were you involved in specifying the ingredients of the Swiffer cleaning formula?

Well, in that particular case, we were not involved in specifying the ingredients of the cleaning formula of the Swiffer WetJet. In general, though, it depends on how comprehensive the request for our services is. If we are asked to develop a concept that will then be developed through manufacturing by our client’s engineering staff, we will try to develop and propose ideas that are fundamentally less wasteful, and will suggest particular materials and processes. On the other hand, when we are asked to fully develop an idea through engineering, both mechanical and electrical, we try to choose environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. Although we do not employ chemists on our teams, we have sometimes employed consultants from universities in the area; for example, to develop a chemical formula for a biomedical product that had to be benign with respect to the environment.

How would you define sustainability?

In my view, the concept of sustainability cannot be limited to environmental issues. Finding the “right thing to do” won’t help much if most people won’t do it. We need to find the best thing to do that many people will do—because it’s enjoyable, beneficial, and engaging for them—and that is economically viable.

Unfortunately, human beings have a difficult time seeing the relationship between their behavior and its effects, if those effects are too distant in time or space. So people may pay lip service to more ecofriendly behavior—public transportation, for example—but unless that behavior provides short-term gratification, it is not likely to be sustainable.

What does this mean for designers?

Our job is to: (1) Carefully analyze the real environmental impact of some activity—anything from taking a bath to generating power; (2) understand what human values and desires are involved in that activity; and (3) find the elegant solution that provides greater value—that means greater physical, emotional, and social satisfaction, as well as greater economic benefit—while avoiding harm to the environment as much as possible.

Do you think the design community is adopting a more sustainable process?

Unfortunately, the design community is very fragmented, and, to a great extent, unprepared at this point. Some designers, and some design firms, are beginning to adopt cradle-to-cradle design practices, and to be more conscious of the impact of design decisions dealing with energy consumption and material waste. But the idea of doing better with less is only beginning to take hold.

What have you learned from the experience of being criticized for your sustainability claims?

I am not at all bothered by constructive criticism. It provokes further thought on my part, and it gives me the opportunity to communicate with greater detail what we are trying to do in this arena.

Do you think the consumer-products industry needs a certification process—similar to LEED standards for buildings—in order to verify the authenticity of green claims, and combat claims of greenwashing?

I think these things are inevitable. It will take some time to do it right, and to have the general population adopt this mind shift, but, like all important progress, I believe it will eventually come about.

Beyond meeting certain EU regulations (ROHS and WEEE, for example), what kinds of sustainability issues is Continuum investigating for its clients?

Our work is broad in scope, going beyond products, to the design of environments and services. We are therefore looking into many different methods for evaluating sustainability and environmentally conscious design—everything from smarter materials and longer-lasting products that serve multiple functions, to consumer environments, such as stores and restaurants, that use natural light, or buy as much of their food as possible from local farms.

Right now we are working with solar energy, air purification, chemical-free bug and pest detection, shared high-end transportation in urban settings, and medical devices with longer shelf lives and with less plastic, fewer wires, and lower electrical consumption (yet with far less error than previous versions of these products)—to name a few.

In the design process, who is most influential in pushing for “better” solutions: designers, clients, government, or consumers?

All of those constituencies have equal responsibility, and, I believe, equal power. Nevertheless, the focus up until now has been on legislation—which is a “push” mindset. The power of the customer and of designers has been discounted. I think designers can create a “pull” effect, whereby customers demand more sustainable solutions, not only because they are environmentally sound but because they give better value, provide more enjoyment, and make people feel better about their choices.