Article archive: 2011 – The question of added value

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A small green shoot in an otherwise anxious economic time:  In the small town of Baikal in Siberia a transformation takes place. Where once stood the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill belching foul-smelling sulphates into the air and chlorides, phenols and other chemicals into the lake now grows a blossoming tourism industry. The ecologists had failed to get the factory shut down from breaching health and safety regulations but the global recession succeeded. Other examples exist:  the number of small steel mills that closed their doors in India caused an 85% drop of sulphur dioxide (falling as acid rain) in the atmosphere and last year the reduced economic activity was projected to cut Europe’s emissions of carbon dioxide by 100 million tonnes. (Begley, The Recession’s Green lining, newsweek Mar 2009)

Obviously economic recession is not a long-term environmental strategy. The challenge is to re-engineer what survives and re-invent the new, so that when the economy revs up it’s not back to polluting business as usual.

This is what comes to mind when I hear the phrase ‘never waste a good crisis’  (which seems to be quite a fair bit at the moment). I reckon that if necessity is the mother of invention then design is the industry of invention. We are trained to find those ingenious ways to help solve the hardest of challenges.  We really should stop being so detail focused for a moment and collectively set about solving these big global issues.

If you open your eyes to the real impact of our industry and take a look around your studio, your house, your life you will see that design lies at the heart in much of our everyday choices. Step back through the chain of suppliers, before this stuff hits the shelves – through manufacturers, corporations, decision-makers – you will find the impact in material, energy, water and waste were determined right at the design and concept stage and therefore most probably by a designer.

Some industries like the vehicle industry have become much more efficient in their design of a better car (but in the same period our car use has increased globally). And in areas where products are directly accountable for using or emitting pollutants there has been improvement. Other positive impacts have come from Legislation. The waste disposable push from Europe through the WEEE directive and increasing landfill taxes and have forced alternative thinking on a product’s after life. There are now a growing number of new Management systems that focus on sustainability and the debate still rages on about obligation or peer pressure. If people aren’t driving it then legislation must impose it,

Too many clients are still wedded to the system of selling as much product as possible as this is still how we calculate profit and growth. There seems to be an obligation for designers to accept commercial rationale to create such objects though clearly we must find ways to make sure that such processes create environmentally benign stuff.

The focus on resource depletion and challenge of material efficiency is an increasingly exciting area. Recent documentaries have highlighted some extraordinarily resourceful communities in Lagos and Mumbai slums that we would do well to learn from. These people show creativity and inventiveness whilst eking out a living from the stuff thrown out by the rest of society. Not Utopian in any means but resourceful and incredibly efficient.

There is also some fantastic innovation going on in R&D with regards to disassembly and recovery of resources. It seems crazy to me that some designers still do not understand the consequences of their decisions that are sometimes purely concerned about aesthetics. Simple things like co-molding two different plastics together in a toothbrush design or laminating a piece of paper can predetermine its painful and slow landfill demise. This will be where new alliances for designers, waste and materials industry can flourish.

Inevitably as oil prices keep rising and with the much predicted peak oil (the point in time when the maximum rate of global extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline) materials and resources will become ever more expensive pushing further the drive for more environmental efficiency.

Mike Pitts from the Chemistry KTN talked at greengaged in 2008 about other ‘peaks’ in mined materials. He presented a memorable slide of the periodic table – a visual representation of every known element on the planet – showing how, if we continued using and designing without easy (and safe) disassembly and recycling we would banish a big chunk of these essential building blocks to landfill very soon (very soon being 5-10 years in some instances).

So there is need for more responsibility in the way we choose materials and a wider outlook for new opportunities to turn waste into someone else’s raw material. But responsibility does not mean boring. What designers can bring to the party is much more than a reactive approach.

What’s fascinating about sustainability is that it’s fundamentally a value system characterised by reducing and eradicating environmental impact in much the same way that nature does. Taking generic principles like efficiency, non-pollution, whole life design, dematerialisation – one can use them in any area of design. The more creative and more ingenious we are – the quicker and bigger the positive environmental paybacks.

 As a final thought I should really mention cost. Everyone always asks about costs. Doesn’t it cost more to produce something more sustainably? Clients don’t want to pay or pass on any extra; designers don’t want to give others the competitive advantage.

 The reality is that none of this impact is accounted for, like a lost number in the mother of all excel spreadsheets. Even if you are a hard climate sceptic you cannot get away from the consequences of our excess this planet is now coping with and the role we are unwittingly playing.

This article appeared in the sustainable design supplement in Design Week, 2011

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