Greener Electronics Start with Smarter Designs

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

Have you ever had a career hero? Someone in your line of work that you really admire? Perhaps a cliché example would be to aspire to have the business sense of Bill Gates.

I have three industrial design heroes. The first is Henry Dreyfuss, an American designer who made significant advancements in the usability and function of products during the middle of the century. The second is William McDonough, a designer and architect known for his ultra sustainable ideas. And the third is Naoto Fukasawa, a well-known Japanese designer famous for his simplistic and sleek products. I became interested in the latter after seeing just one of his designs in an industrial design class I had my sophomore year of college. It was, surprisingly enough, a CD player. Nothing really relevant to anything I was interested in much less relevant to that year (the age of ipods.)  Nonetheless, I was blow away.

The Muji wall mounted CD player has one aspect that I find especially captivating: one pull cord to turn the whole device on and off. Maybe nothing revolutionary but for one reason or another I had never considered something so simple on a device that has become so complicated. Now of course this would not be ideal for every person in every situation but personally, I like to play background music, that’s it. I don’t need to start and stop, skip and replay, I would just like music playing or not playing.  Therefore, I found this to be a great design.

How does this relate to sustainable electronics? Simplistic designs, like the Muji wall mounted CD player, seem to encourage sustainability. This CD player does not have standby power mode meaning there is only energy used while the device is being used. Now, of course, there are a lot of other electronic products that similarly have no standby, but there are probably an equal amount of products that do, for instance, my new ipod speakers. These speakers have a giant wall plug that I always forget to unplug when I am not using it and all it does on standby is light up a green light that says it’s ready for use. Microwaves or coffee makers with standby mode clocks are also examples of unnecessary energy use in my opinion. Have you ever noticed how many clocks are in your kitchen? I think we have four, not counting my wristwatch.

On/off switches are usually good indicators of a device without standby but that is not always the case. For instance, TVs usually still have a standby power mode.

Some estimates show that electronics on standby only account for 5% of electricity consumption while other figures suggest it is closer to 13%. Whatever the number, this is energy used that could easily be avoided with better design.

The good news is that there is a lot already being done to discourage energy use in standby power mode. There are ad campaigns suggesting that you unplug while not in use or have a power strip that you can simply turn off when any of the devices plugged into that are not in use. President George W. Bush administered an executive order that says federal buildings can only purchase products that use less than one watt of energy when they are in standby power mode.  President Obama also committed to have federal agencies make improvements in their environmental, energy and economic performance by the year 2020.  These are definitely steps in the right direction.  All we need now is for designers to stop designing products that have unnecessary standby power mode and this whole problem would be cut off at the cord.

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