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January 13, 2012

Ford, Fashion and the Sustainable Highway

The invitation stood out among the usual emails and press releases from automobile companies. For one thing, it was pretty. And the subject matter was intriguing: the intersection between fashion, vehicles and living green:

'What do soy beans, carrots and coconuts, Fashion Week, and the psychology of color all have in common?" it asked. I wanted to hear the answer from a panel of experts from the design team at Ford: 

  • Anthony Prozzi: Interior designer
  • Carol Kordich: Lead Designer Sustainable Materials
  • Susan Swek: Global Chief Color Chief Color and Materials Designer

I was already aware of Ford Motor Company's commitment to using sustainable materials, and have been impressed with the company's energy efficient technologies, like the EcoBoost engine available now on many of its vehicles. But this was the first time I had a chance to learn how that commitment affects the work of the automaker's design team. It was a fascinating glimpse at how a new model comes to market.

The event was moderated by Natasha Garber, editor at the green fashion site EcoStiletto, and it went like this:

 

Former Donna Karan designer Anthony Prozzi began the discussion by presenting us all with an illustrated timeline of design trends spanning the last hundred years; showing how style trends of each decade influence the cars we drive in the next one. 

FORDS-FASHION-CARS-CULTURE_1900"FORDS-FASHION-CARS-CULTURE_2010Prozzi thinks the news, trends and design cues we experience today point back to another decade that could be described as turbulent: the 1960's.

While television and movies are full of nostalgia for that era (Mad Men, Pan Am), on auto lots you see a re-emergence of classic muscle cars like Ford's Mustang.

"But today's Mustang is Eco-friendly," Prozzi pointed out. The EPA estimates the 2012 Mustang at 19 miles per gallon City/29 Highway.

The key difference between our time and the past is that modern automakers "must not only design, but design with a conscience" he said. 

According to Prozzi, the world's number one challenge isn't global recession, but the quest for environmentally sustainable societies and economies.

"Eco Friendly equals Superior Functionality plus Superior Design," Prozzi says. He pointed out a real-world example of this equation in Ford's Focus, a favorite among auto writers for its styling as well as its economy. 

One factor in those savings was the use of Ricinus communis, the bean that gives us castor oil, to create the foam backing for the vehicle's air bags. This one material more than 5,000 barrels of oil from every 300,000 Focuses sold in North America.

Carol Kordich began her presentation with a disturbing statistic that indicates exactly why Ford needs a lead designer of sustainable materials: Each year, Amercans generate an average of 11.8 million tons of textile waste. This adds up to ten pounds per person per year.

Kordich and her team are doing their part to reduce this enormous output of textile waste. In 2008, Ford's Escape HEV hybrid-electric vehicle was the first US-made automobile to utilize 100% post industrial seat fabric.

The result of this initiative is an estimated annual energy saving of 600,000 gallons of water, 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents, and 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity, noted Kordich's colleague Susan Swek.

The following year, Ford required a minimum of 25% recycled content in ALL their vehicles.

Kordich pointed out that fabric has been the key area for this. One of the challenges is that it has to have the same quality and appearance as virgin material, so it was crucial to create partnerships with suppliers who would have the same common goal.

"Everyone wants to be the leader in the industry when it comes to sustainability," Kordich said.

Kordich spoke at lengh about the innovations they've made with their manufacturing partners in post-industrial fabrics.

The seats of the Taurus SHO are covered with a suede-like fabric made of recycled pop bottles (20 bottles are used to create one square meter of fabric. This results in a reduction of consumer waste, oil depletion and toxic dyes.

This same program will be in new Ford Fusion around the world: One car uses 38 plastic bottles, mixed in with other recycled fabrics, such as ones made of recycled yarns.

Kordich said fabrics used in the new Focus Electric is 100% recycled, and that with this vehicle, Ford has eliminated waste from the manufacturing loop. 

Ford_ColorColor and Materials designer Susan Swek concluded the discussion with one of the most intriguing topics: color trends, which change constantly and vary between countries and even US cities. She said that globally, the two most popular colors are silver and black... but that recently in North America, both of those colors are now surpassed by White.

This is no trivial matter: Swek cited research indicating that up to 40% of car buyers say they would walk out of a dealership if they could buy a vehicle in the color they desire.

Swek was armed with material swatches and samples of the hues that will be seen on Ford's future vehicles and talked about some of the many trends that influence the auto company's design team: everything from fashion magazines, television and movies to videogames and Twitter trends. And because it takes several years to bring a new model to market, there's a bit of intuition involved.

Swek told the group how Ford and its suppliers are currently working on sustainable paints and clear coats, but they're "not there yet." She said they've had some success with the actual pigments but formulating a sustainable top coat that will protect the vehicle's finish is a work in progress.

However: it wasn't long ago that the idea of using recyclables at all was considered radical, because they were originally more expensive.  But by mandating their use and working closely with their suppliers, Ford's cost has come down. Swek told the group that the company's ultimate goal is to get to 100% in all fabrics -- and they are making progress: right now, they are at 30-40%, Swek said.

EcoStiletto's Natasha Garber asked the designers about their holy grails: which part of the vehicle is most challenging to convert to sustainable materials? 

"Plastic," replied Carol Kordich, "because it is oil based and there is a lot plastic inside the interior." She pointed out that the design team has been working with bio based plastic, but have had problems making its surfaces look appealing.

 Anthony Prozzi pointed out how the design process itself has become more sustainable. Instead of creating countless foam and clay models, today's designers render their ideas with the assistance of advanced, 3D computer modeling. 

But the most striking takeaway from the event was how committed these Ford designers were to making the vehicles more environmentally friendly -- and stylish.

The vehicles must be "meaningful to the customer, different to the competition and understanding the Ford DNA and values," said Susan Swek. And this formula appears to be working for them.

 

2010

by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor
AskPatty.com

 





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