It’s time to act

Sector expert Sophie Thomas outlines current developments in sustainability and the environmental challenges that are driving change, and suggests what the design industry should be doing to meet them

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 a pulp and paper mill belching foul-smelling sulphates into the air, and spilling chemicals into the lake, now grows a blossoming tourism industry. Where the ecologists had failed, the global recession succeeded in getting the factory shut down.

Other examples are the number of small steel mills that closed in India causing an 85 per cent drop of sulphur dioxide (which falls as acid rain) in the air, and last year the reduced economic activity in Europe was projected to cut carbon dioxide emissions there by 100 million tonnes.

Obviously, recession is not viable as 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’ . 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 detailfocused for a moment and collectively set about solving these big global issues.

If you open your eyes to the impact of our industry and take a look around, you will see that design lies at the heart of many everyday choices we make. Step back through the chain of suppliers, before this stuff hits the shelves – through manufacturers, corporations, decisionmakers – and you will find the impact, in terms of materials, energy, water and waste, was determined right at the design and concept stage and, therefore, most probably by a designer.

Some industries – such as the automotive sector, with its design of better vehicles – have become much more efficient. And in areas where products are directly accountable for using or emitting pollutants, there have been improvements. Other positive impacts have come from legislation. The waste disposal drive from Europe, through the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, and higher landfill taxes have forced alternative thinking on a product’s afterlife. There are now a growing number of new management systems that focus on sustainability, and the debate still rages 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 objects, though clearly we must find ways to make sure that such processes create environmentally benign stuff.

The focus on resource depletion and the challenge of material efficiency is an exciting area. Recent documentaries have highlighted extraordinarily resourceful communities in Lagos and Mumbai slums that we’d do well to learn from. These people show creativity and inventiveness while eking out a living from the stuff thrown out by the rest of society – not utopian, but resourceful and incredibly efficient.

There is also fantastic innovation going on in research into disassembly and recovery of resources. It’s crazy that some designers still don’t understand the consequences of decisions that are sometimes purely concerned with aesthetics. Simple things like co-moulding two different plastics 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 the design, waste and materials industries can flourish.

Inevitably, as oil prices keep rising and the rate of oil 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. Five to ten years’ time, in some instances.

So there is need for more responsibility in the way we choose materials, and for 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 such as efficiency, nonpollution, whole-life design and dematerialisation, you can use them in any area of design. The more creative and more ingenious we are, the quicker and bigger the positive environmental paybacks.

Finally, everyone always asks about costs, assuming it always costs more to produce something more sustainably: clients don’t want to pay extra or pass on higher costs, designers don’t want to give rivals a competitive advantage. In reality, none of this impact is accounted for.

Even if you are a hard climate sceptic, you cannot get away from the consequences of the excesses this planet is now coping with, and the role we are all unwittingly playing.

Sophie Thomas is founding director of Thomas Matthews

What design can do to combat climate change – the starter list:

  • Rethinking Step back and think to find different ways to communicate clients’ needs
  • Reusing Aim to achieve more with less. Reuse things to create something new. Then recycle
  • Using friendly materials Whenever you can, use recycled and innovative products. Avoid specifying and wasting environmentally harmful materials
  • Saving energy Reduce clients’ carbon footprint by using sustainable energy sources
  • Sharing new ideas Seek out and use new technologies and materials and collaborate whenever you can
  • Designing to last Design things that last by specifying the right material for the job
  • Staying local, buying ethical Find good local suppliers for each job, to avoid the extra energy and pollution created by lengthy transport, and to strengthen the local community and economy
  • Supporting what we believe Work for clients who push agendas you care about
  • Inspiring, having fun Create design that is beautiful, clever and sustainable all at once
  • Saving money Thinking ’sustainable’ can save resources and money

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