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[Weekender] Chic, handy and green

Eco-design promises to change the way goods are conceived, produced and consumed

Feb. 28, 2014 - 21:00 By Korea Herald

Sacrificing style, convenience and utility for the sake of the Earth? That may not be necessary. Here comes a new breed of eco-friendly products that are functional, stylish and environmentally sound, to boot.

From recycled clothes to biodegradable takeout coffee cups, eco-designers are diversifying green options so that we can throw away our Earth-polluting lifestyle. Armed with creative ideas and passion for the planet, they are a growing force, challenging the way products are conceived, produced and consumed in Korea.

“Although eco-design has been in use since the 1980s in the West, it is still a pretty new concept here in Korea,” said Jung Young-do, a researcher at Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute. “It’s at a budding stage here.”

The term “eco-design” refers to a way of designing products to minimize their negative impacts on the environment throughout their lifecycle, while keeping or increasing their functionality and value.

It represents a break from the past because eco-friendly improvements of products didn’t always serve the interests of consumers in terms of function, style and price.

Businesses regarded greenification as a societal trend they were supposed to follow or regulations they had to observe rather than an active investment capable of generating extra revenue.

“But eco-design is a win-win concept for both producers and consumers,” Jung said.

In some European countries, where green consumerism is established, eco-design brands are considered to have business potential.

The Swiss firm Freitag, for example, is selling its bags made of old truck tarps all over the world, including Korea. Finnish firm Globe Hope makes clothing and fashion items from recycled materials.

No Korean eco-brands are that successful yet. There are still many obstacles to overcome in order for this sort of business to take off, according to Hong Seok-jin, a researcher at Korea Institute of Industrial Technology. His institute has been running programs to spread the concept among businesses here for the past decade.

“In many cases, ideas just end up as ideas. Whether an idea can turn into a salable product depends on a combination of factors ― function, price, design and, most importantly, consumer demand,” he said.

Instead of developing new eco-design products, many firms have redesigned their products to meet environmental regulations in European countries, he noted.

“Now better equipped to comply with regulations, the firms are waking up to the business potential of creative eco-designs.”

While big firms are moving slowly, an increasing number of green entrepreneurs are already testing out the market, catering to a growing number of consumers ― mostly young ― who consider environmentally friendly products to be trendy and cool.

Twelve representatives of small eco-design firms established the Korea Upcycle Design Association. “A wide range of designers are expanding the realm of eco-design. We are now shifting from simply recycling textiles to manufacturing furniture and reusing coffee grounds and other things through cutting-edge technologies,” said Park Mi-hyun, president of the association.

Kim Dae-ho, an eco-consultant and author of two books on eco-design, said Park and like-minded people are taking a new, more effective approach to environmental issues, wittingly or unwittingly.

“Showing consumers images of polar bears and other endangered species numerous times won’t make a change” in our mass production, mass consumption economy, he said.

The economy will become greener only when professionals in various fields, such as designers, marketers and entrepreneurs, turns their green ideas into actions. In a broader sense, they are all eco-designers, he added.

By Lee Sun-young