Designing for sustainability: what are the challenges behind green materials?

A Taiya aboriginal villager walks through a sustainable bamboo forest

Learning to surf in California’s frigid breakers, Todd Copeland, a design guru at the Patagonia clothing company, concluded that wet suits weren’t cutting it. Sure, a traditional Neoprene suit could keep him warm, but the suit’s material could be synthesised only from non-renewable, energy-intensive resources such as petroleum or kiln-baked limestone.

In spring 2008, Copeland blogged about the need for a truly green alternative. And, later that summer, his cry found its way to Yulex, an Arizona-based company working to resurrect a low-energy, low-toxin recipe for rubber from guayule, a desert shrub native to North America. Research on the plant peaked during the second world war but was then was shelved. Yulex had restarted the work around 2000 and was making hypo-allergenic surgical gloves, but was seeking a new market. It saw Copeland’s post, and soon its reps came knocking.