A Wasteful Society’s Pathway to a Sustainable Future

Jordan Goren - Science and Technology

As the looming threat of climate change and our presumed demise becomes increasingly prevalent, so too does our opportunity for meaningful innovation. As a student, sustainability and resourcefulness was stressed throughout my degree. We were pushed to reduce the amount of waste a project created and to utilise any left-over waste material in creative ways. This became more obvious as I moved through my degree. Although its significance was brought to the limelight this year as news of end of year exhibitions being cancelled bounced around student inboxes. The university was moving toward a more green-conscious model.

Sustainability is no doubt at the forefront of design in the contemporary world and the new-age industrial designers will be well-equipped to tackle problems surrounding waste and eco-design.
It is difficult to imagine a future where humanity is better off than the past or present, and the excitement of future possibilities has evolved into a fear of the future as our natural world slowly deteriorates into an artificial construction as a result of the obsession with economic growth. Economic growth is an outdated concept that is no longer realistic as an ecological ceiling is forcing us to focus on sustainable growth. Our need to consume has created unprecedented levels of waste and the use of unnecessary amounts of energy in the production of 'stuff'. By pushing the boundaries of new technologies the design sphere is set for major changes in not only the composition of materials and objects but also changes to business models and consumer expectations. In order to deal with the shifting economy, designers have been exploring methodologies that involve recyclability such as product re-use and repair. This essentially means before throwing that broken toy, old bicycle or torn jacket into landfill, there is an attempt at either fixing it or finding an alternative use for it to extend its useful product life. By re-using or re-purposing our old objects we are given an opportunity to help reduce production, and the emissions and waste that come with the creation of new consumer items.

Velvette De Laney, a graphic designer with 20 years of experience believes that there is a need to create a simple understanding of the impacts that our design decisions have on the future of our field. She suggests that through educating consumers on sustainable waste disposal and making any end-of-use intentions (or possibilities) clear and easy to understand that consumers will be more inclined to be sustainable. By doing this, consumers will feel good about their purchases and disposal habits and grow more connected to the brands with which they align themselves. De Laney believes there is a "huge opportunity [for designers]…to reduce landfill waste and improve consumer habits". The opportunity lies in our design, material, and manufacturing decisions, through which we can change attitudes and behaviours of both consumers and businesses.

Product re-use and the concept of up-cycling explores the idea that the fundamental components of an object can be recycled at the end of the products perceived 'useful' life. Recycling these parts to form completely new objects or breaking the components down to their raw materials to make up new forms or repair other objects has recently exploded into a world-wide phenomenon. This concept extends further than simply using an empty jam jar as a pot plant. There are several companies and boutique design studios that have incorporated this concept into their design philosophy in order to reduce their carbon footprint. I explored this idea in the capstone project of my Bachelor's degree where I built a side table made up of entirely reclaimed components. Sidekick, 2018 was an investigation into extending the 'useful' life of skateboard decks after they were too worn to be used as such and because each year millions of decks end up in landfill due to a toxic chemical in the adhesive between the layers of maple plywood that make it unrecyclable in the conventional sense.

Ben Bridgens, a senior lecturer of Architectural Technology whose research focuses on the role of materials in design argues that design-for-reuse should be an integral part of industrial design training and practice if we intend to reduce the wastefulness of our economy. This would allow for more intelligent responses regarding the issue to develop. To achieve a reduction in waste they suggest that one approach is for people to nurture new creative and productive relationships with their possessions. As Fromm describes, in the past 'everything one owned was cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility'. During World War II, up-cycling activities were strongly encouraged by governments and supported a wider drive to optimise the use of limited resources (Witkowski, 2003). However, since the industrial revolution and the ease of production that came with it, our global mentality has revolved around the detrimental idea of a take-make-waste economy. For this paradigm shift to take place we will need to gain an understanding of the meanings that consumers attach to possessions (Belk, 1988). Therefore they propose that what is required is a mental shift in how people perceive and imagine the materials that make up their daily lives.

Employing sustainable design practices is not a new, nor revolutionary concept but it is important that as consumers we are aware of the environmental impact of our purchases. Stuart Walker explores the concept of design activism in the modern era. He believes that designers now must confront a multitude of new concerns surrounding environmental awareness and social justice but the current issues facing designers are deeply unjust, socially divisive and, on a global scale, associated with outdated principles and growth-oriented priorities of modernity. Walker suggests it is the products and their modes of production, marketing, and use that are intimately linked to un-sustainability. Reiterating that there is an urgent need to revaluate the nature of our material culture and focus on the development of alternative visions. Advocating that continuing down a clearly problematic path where environmental, social, and personal welfare are not considered is neither innovative nor meaningful. That we must take product design in new directions; we must transcend the status quo, contest its assumptions and design for meaningful innovation.

The outdoor apparel company Patagonia believes the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature must be displaced. Patagonia has been leading the shift towards utilizing product-service-strategies, as companies are now realizing 'that an innovative sustainability strategy, aligned with goals and resources, delivers a competitive edge' (Rattalino, 2015). While this is a necessary step for large companies to take, it raises concerns about overconsumption in the fashion industry as this sustainability shift has led to rapid revenue growth. Although Patagonia's intentions were pure the results have ultimately increased the overall environmental impact of Patagonia's business operations as 'knowledge of sustainable production processes or similar may help them justify their behavior' (McNeill & Moore, 2015). Consequently, this aids consumers' in overcoming the perceived 'high financial cost' (McNeill & Moore, 2015) of factoring sustainability into their consumption decisions. Though Patagonia may be criticized for this, it is important to understand that Patagonia on their own are ill-equipped to tackle the issue of overconsumption and fast fashion, and should be commended on pioneering change and starting a conversation about the serious environmental issues intertwined within the fashion industry.

Shifting business models to be more aligned with sustainable practices is an excellent way to start the uphill battle against climate change. However, the real innovation will come through the development of new and exciting materials, design methodologies, and nurturing a global awareness that unites people to fight for change. Sustainable practice has the potential to completely reconfigure our understanding of design in the current climate. Small companies and start-ups usually do not have the capital to invest in sustainability metrics although early insight into the environmental impact of their products can make a big difference to the future of design. Victor Papanek is a designer who became a strong advocate of socially and ecologically responsible design. In his book, 'Design for the Real World' he encourages designers to reject designing for superficial wants and to focus on human needs. At the physical level, this means ceasing to use approaches that are detrimental to the ecological systems on which our survival depends. At the social level, it means acting in ways that ethically appropriate and socially just. At the personal level, it means acting in ways that are in accord with deeper human values and conducive to spiritual wellbeing. The earth has become a design space, and saving the planet is now a design project.

Written by Jordan Goren

Jordan Goren is a Sydney based Industrial Designer whose passion lies with furniture and object design.

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