The Urgent Need to Design for Health and Wellbeing

Business has to have a vision that goes beyond profits. That is easy to say but much harder to live up to. With all the talk of CSR and the triple bottom line, how many companies actually put these goals into the heart of their business strategy and operations? One of the defining issues of our times is whether businesses can design things in a way that drives commercial success and delivers a positive impact on the planet and people's health and wellbeing.

And one of the biggest issues in the built environment today is linked to something that is invisible and completely taken for granted: the air that we breathe. Smog in cities from Beijing to Paris is becoming more familiar to many. But how many of us really consider the way in which that has an impact on the indoor atmosphere in the offices, homes, conference centres, schools, hospitals, care centres and the public transport that we all move around in?

Let's take it one step further: How many wonder whether the man-made elements around us - the paint on the walls, the materials in the tables, chairs and floors for example - contain chemicals that could release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that may cause harm? How many consider the dust particles, smaller in diameter than a strand of hair that could lodge inside your lungs or vascular system causing heart and respiratory conditions including asthma?

One of the big megatrends ahead of us is urbanization, which makes this health issue even more relevant. Cities have been growing at an average of 65 million people annually across the past 30 years - equivalent to adding seven cities of Chicago every year, according to McKinsey. Already, more than half of the world's population lives in cities. This is predicted to increase to 60% by 2030 and by mid-century, two thirds of us will be living in cities. And then consider that we spend 90% of our time indoors.

Not only is poor indoor air quality (IAQ) a threat to people's health and wellbeing but it can also have a negative impact on workplace productivity and attendance levels. Indeed, a Californian study by William Fisk from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory demonstrated that the economic impact of increased productivity from improved IAQ, can boost US office worker productivity by 0.5 to 5 percent, with estimated annual savings of $20 to $200 billion.

And the problem of IAQ is going to get worse, according to one recent report by Professor Hazim Awbi from the University of Reading's School of Construction Management and Engineering in the UK, who predicts that the number of Britons with asthma could almost double by 2050. He says:

"Poor indoor air quality is connected with a range of undesirable health effects, such as allergic and asthma symptoms, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, airborne respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease."

This situation is clearly unacceptable. As a company that has worked to design eco-effective products according to Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) standards since 2008, these issues are not new to us. Indeed, C2C co-founders Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough address the issue of design head on in their seminal book, Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way We Make Things, first published in 2002. There they adopt the importance of designing products to be good from the start in terms of their impact on the environment and human health as well as their ability to be disassembled later for recycling. Braungart, whose consultancy EPEA has been assessing Desso's products since 2008, always stressed the dangers of poor indoor air quality.

For this reason, the goals of material health is at the very heart of what we do at Desso in driving our C2C and circular economy agenda. It led our R&D team in 2010 to create a carpet tile, the DESSO AirMaster® engineered to significantly reduce the amount of fine dust in the indoor space.

Professor Awbi says the average person breathes in 500 litres of air an hour. With efforts to make buildings more energy efficient, he fears the tightening of ventilation will make things worse. He predicts a rise in VOCs and incidences of asthma and says "some form of mechanical ventilation is needed".

With C2C criteria, the goal is to only use materials that will contain positively defined materials with very low VOCs, designed to have a good impact on health and wellbeing and to encourage eco-innovations that improve IAQ.

We welcome the spread of C2C and circular economy concepts to other producers of goods that make up the built environment. Building green cities of the future means taking account of the air we breathe. Getting it right at the design stage is crucial. The goal for businesses today is to re-imagine making things, so that they make good profits and do good at the same time. Braungart and McDonough expressed it well back in 2002:

"The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, as efficiency advocates propound, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world. Thus the 'right things' for manufacturers and industrialists to do are those that lead to good growth - more niches, health, nourishment, diversity, intelligence, and abundance - for this generation of inhabitants on the planet and for generations to come."

C2C and the vision set by Braungart and McDonough are now widely discussed at fora such as the WEF's annual gathering at Davos, with companies joining us in the drive to circular economics. All that is encouraging and suggest that together we will increasingly find solutions that do generate the strong triple bottom line growth we are all looking for.