Sustainable Lighting: how can we do better

The life of a lighting designer is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s our job to improve the quality of spaces for people. We fill these spaces with emotion, interest and drama; we create more user-friendly environments, improve efficiencies in the workplace, help retailers sell more goods, create experiences and destinations, save energy and even assist end-users through improved health and wellbeing.

Yet for all the benefits we bring to a space we have to wrestle with the detriments. Every watt of energy we use on a project is another watt of energy burned. Designing energy-efficient lighting schemes is always a priority, but we also understand that creating an emotional connection between a user and a space isn’t always conducive to the most energy-efficient solution. (Most energy-efficient schemes often have maximised spacings of luminaires and relatively homogeneous light levels – functionality over design.) So, as designers, we’re often using a little more energy to generate a lot more “emotion and connection”. But it’s still more energy, which means more cost and does more harm to the environment.

Then we need to consider the environmental impact of the equipment we specify. Many LED products are “commodity” product whereby at the end of life the entire luminaire will be thrown away, or ideally recycled at least in part. Many years after the conversation about embodied energy started, we still seem no closer to really understanding the impact that luminaire manufacturing has on the environment. Not only are LEDs one of the most polluting light sources ever conceived (in terms of manufacturing), they require rare-earth metals, which means mining, extraction and polluting. To add to this, the luminaire components are shipped around the world, sometimes several times in the production process of a single fitting.

Standards such as Part L have long been the driver for energy reduction in lighting schemes and it’s simply not a good enough barometer of what constitutes a minimally impacting scheme. Accreditations such as WELL, LEED and BREEAM have sought to address the issue of sustainability and they continue to evolve in terms of assessment criteria; albeit not fast enough. In almost all cases, they hold only the design accountable, not the equipment – this provides limited incentive for luminaire manufacturers to be more open with information and to significantly push the boundaries of environmental impact, recyclability and embodied energy when manufacturing.

This is a pretty damning indictment on the lighting community, and it doesn’t sit comfortably. So, what can we do more, better and differently to reduce the impact of our craft for today and for tomorrow? Well, thankfully, there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel.

We’re now seeing proprietary “accreditation” emerging: LVMH together with lighting designers TEMELOY have recently released their own “Lighting for Good” documentation requiring all suppliers to provide detailed analysis of each luminaire’s environmental impact and technical efficiency. It’s a huge step in the right direction.

Clients are now putting their own environmental impact in the spotlight and are demanding more from the designers and equipment they use. We currently have a client aspiring to achieve the lowest “wattage per metre square” ever reached in an office (aside from turning the lights off); another wants at least 50% of all luminaires to include recycled materials. These are phenomenal aspirational goals and certainly something we’re proud to be at the forefront of as the project lighting designers.

Some engineering firms have had sustainability arms for years (Gensler comes to mind), but more are now opening in-house departments, with lighting – the visual embodiment of wasted energy and environmental impact – high up on the agenda. This additional set of consultants is a group we’re embracing.

Independent lighting consultants are also welcoming the conversation around the circular economy as manufacturers are finally starting to pay attention to the demands and needs of the industry. Recently there’s been the launch of the GreenLight Alliance – a fantastic initiative within the lighting industry that’s focused on adopting and promoting the circular economy. By establishing a collective that encourages conversation and knowledge sharing, it hopes to work towards standardised metrics for environmental impact of manufacturing. Then there’s the Society of Light and Lighting (SLL), who are developing a much-anticipated Circular Economy Assessment Method (CEAM) as part of a new SLL & CIBSE Technical Memorandum. The aim is to inform, enable and motivate manufacturers to achieve the highest CEAM rating via an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand “checklist”.

One very interesting element to this initiative is that the emphasis is moving away from recyclability and towards re-using, re-purposing and “fixing” high-value luminaires rather than recycling the components into low-value raw materials, as is currently undertaken under the WEEE directive.

This is likely to require a significant shift in thinking and designing from luminaire manufacturers, moving to a “modular component design” whereby individual components can be easily replaced rather than the whole luminaire being recycled (or worse – thrown away), as is the case right now. Funnily enough, this seems like a return to the mindset of bygone years…

So, the design industry as a whole stand at the beginning of an exciting and long journey that will see the way we work go through the biggest change we’ve seen since the wide-spread adoption of the LED. It’s no longer enough to give a nod towards the environmental impact of our designs. It’s time for us to step-up and be accountable for all that we design and specify throughout its life. It’s certainly an exciting challenge but it’s well worth the effort when I look at my daughter and think about the world that her generation will be left with.