The Transparency Project: Everyday Products, Consumer Knowledge and Environmental Impacts

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Image: Chris Burns

The Transparency Project seminar brought together academics, researchers, students, government, industry leaders and professional designers over two days to respond to the problem of the lack of transparency and accountability in today’s global economy. Underwritten by the understanding that the contemporary challenge is as much a design problem as it is a policy problem, the seminar emphasised how industry and government have key roles to play in encouraging more sustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Consumers today have very little reliable information about the environmental impacts of the products and services that dominate their lives. From cars and phones to furniture, appliances and packaged foods, most products and services are understood and compared in terms of advertised claims – which can be misleading. There is growing evidence to suggest that when consumers are made aware of an environmental problem, they are more likely to accept pro-environmental regulatory change. With this knowledge in mind, The Transparency Project posed a series of questions: how do we know how our stuff is made? How do we know where it goes when we’re done with it? How do we, transparently and honestly, assess the extent of its environmental impact? And how do we make informed decisions based on this knowledge?

Aimed at encouraging knowledge exchange between industries and universities, the seminar facilitated lively discussion through a series of engaging keynote lectures, panel discussions and parallel presentation sessions. The China-Australia Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of South Australia invited multidisciplinary presentations across three broad themes: case studies profiling the impact of product and services in everyday use, clarifying ways of measuring their impacts in a more accessible manner; communicating environmental impacts more effectively to non-specialists, through labelling, app-based systems, sensing, and other assessment systems; and policy and regulation transitions towards ‘responsible production and consumption’ as per UN’S Sustainable Development Goal 12, with a particular focus on greater transparency and traceability.

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Image: Dr Robert Crocker and Professor Martin Shanahan, photo by Chris Burns

The first day kicked off with a breakfast reception and panel discussion presented in partnership with the Design Institute of Australia’s SA/NT Branch and local sponsor Terrace Floors. Well-attended by diverse members of the architecture, interior design and product design industries, the panel discussion featured prominent members of the design community and a selection of conference speakers.

An official opening of the seminar took place in the afternoon, with welcomes from co-convenors Dr Robert Crocker and Professor Martin Shanahan, UniSA, and Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, UniSA’s Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Enterprise.

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Image: Professor Veena Sahajwalla, photo by Chris Burns

The opening keynote by Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at UNSW, explored how scientific advances are helping to transform electronic waste like phones and computers into valuable materials for re-use. The SMaRT Centre launched the world’s first modular Microfactory in 2018, comprising a series of small machines designed to reform complex waste products into resources.

Other keynotes followed over the two-day seminar, addressing diverse topics from the environmental impact of packaging design to the economics of environmental crisis management. Brooke Donnelly of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation spoke to the potential for packaging design to play a major role in reducing overall packaging production and waste; Dr Robert Gianello of Planex explored how by-products can be diverted from landfill towards adaptive re-use; and Professor Robert Costanza of the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU presented an approach to environmental valuation aimed at making the value of natural resources economically tangible.

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Image: Professor Robert Costanza, photo by Chris Burns

Keynote presentations by Dr Brandon Gien of Good Design Australia and Vaughan Levitzke of Green Industries SA respectively explored sustainable principles in industrial design and policy approaches geared towards incentivising transparency.

Parallel sessions featured a range of researchers and industry leaders and discussions were grouped around three main themes: Environmental Impacts – Policy & Assessment, Consumer Knowledge – Improving Transparency, and Everyday Products – Transparency in Food Systems. Concise and intimate presentations allowed participants to learn about new and established research in adjacent fields and draw cross-disciplinary connections.

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Image: Dr Aaron Davis, photo by Chris Burns

Deputy Director of the China Australia Centre for Sustainable Development, and seminar co-convenor, Dr Robert Crocker, emphasised the importance of accessible, transparent information.

“Understanding the environmental impact of consumer products and services should be everybody’s business, and not some secret only available to a few investigation experts” he said.

“Without this knowledge being more widely available, it will be very hard to persuade consumers to make pro-environmental changes in their lives.”

The China-Australia Centre for Sustainable Development is a research partnership between the University of South Australia and Tianjin University. It hosts regular forums, seminars and conferences across research areas including low carbon design, development and construction, pollution and waste reduction in the urban environment, and implementing the circular economy.