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'Emotionally durable' products focus of environmental conference

Elon University's 12th Annual Fall Environmental Forum brought sustainability and home furnishings experts to McKinnon Hall for a program featuring one of the world's leading experts on sustainable design.

Jonathan Chapman, a professor of sustainable design at the University of Brighton, UK, challenged participants in a sustainable furnishings forum at Elon to design products that emotionally engage with consumers.

Manufacturers have no problem designing and building products that last for 10 or 15 years. But can they craft things that consumers will want for 10 or 15 years?

That’s the question Jonathan Chapman, a professor of sustainable design at the University of Brighton, UK, posed and addressed during his keynote speech at Elon University's 12th Annual Fall Environmental Forum, which this year promoted the theme of “Innovations in Sustainable Furnishings: The Road Ahead."

The program was sponsored by the Elon University Center for Environmental Studies, the Elon University Office of Sustainability, Elon’s Love School of Business, the Sustainable Furnishings Council and more than a half dozen business partners.

During his presentation, Chapman – who has authored two books, contributed to numerous others and currently consults for lifestyle brand PUMA – noted there are parallels between human-to-human interactions and human-to-product interactions.

Much like the people we surround ourselves with, he noted, “products are mirrors and projectors. A product is deployed by us to reflect our values to us. … They also project. They tell everybody else about the things you’re in to and the person you wish you were.”

In the context of furniture and furnishings, Chapman challenged the audience to design products that emotionally connect with consumers. That connection will not only drive brand loyalty, but foster more sustainable products that consumers want to keep longer.

“We (as designers) create objects and put them into the world,” he said. “And that’s where their life begins.”

Oftentimes, products that allow for customization and finishing by the consumer promote emotional durability by allowing them to capture moments in time that add value to them.

“By being able to adapt and change over time, the product renders a service for longer and accumulates meaning through time,” Chapman said. “While we might be selling less product, we’re actually selling something else – an intimacy, a connection with the product.”

In turn, “instead of selling one product to (consumers) and they vanish, we actually sell them seven over a longer period of time.”

And while the push for sustainable design might only be on the periphery for some companies, Chapman estimates its importance will grow so much in the next five to 10 years that it becomes so normal it won’t be talked about as a unique concept any longer.

Elon President Leo M. Lambert welcomed conference attendees on Friday. In his remarks, Lambert noted both the university’s commitment to sustainability and North Carolina’s deep roots in the furniture and furnishings industry.

“I think it’s wonderful that these forces are coming together” at Elon, he said, touting the university’s Green Building Policy and other environmentally conscious efforts. On Friday, Elon announced an 18th campus building had earned LEED certification and the university plans to break ground soon on a solar farm this fall.

“What’s good for the environment has also proven to be good for Elon’s bottom line,” Lambert said.

Philip Jones,
9/20/2013 4:35 PM