I recently attended a talk at Clerkenwell Design Week entitled “How can designers truly be sustainable?“, in which Ross Lovegrove and Morten Villiers Warren from Native Design gave some of their views on the subject.
Unfortunately, the discussion session had a decidedly negative conclusion which was a shame. Not least because it overshadowed Native Design’s great approach to sustainability in Industrial Design outlined in Morten’s preceding presentation.
‘Sustainability in Design’ is a huge, complex subject. Difficult and different to the norm, it can seem overwhelming and easy to be negative about it. But we needn’t be. Consider that some of the typical characteristics of designers include: problem solving, creative and objective thinking, good observation, innovation. Do these not sound like the qualities of people who are capable, maybe even over-qualified, for making positive changes?
I was surprised that Morten predicted that ‘the breakthrough’ in sustainable design would probably come from an emerging, innovative new company in Silicon Valley. Unrestricted by not having huge volumes of legacy products and infrastructure a young, new company could create ‘the new, sustainable way’. A breakthrough that everyone else can then adopt. Really? Are we just going to sit back and wait for someone else to figure it all out? It seemed more than a tad defeatist, especially from someone within a company capable of inspiring, influencing and leading in this field.
We don’t have to wait, or be in Silicon Valley… There have been a huge number of companies founded on an environmentally sustainable business model and these are already forging the way ahead. Examples include DIYKyoto, Kid Eco, Seacourt Printing. Then there are companies like Interface Carpets who have fundamentally changed the way they operate, as well as those who are gradually introducing more and more sustainable aspects to their business such as major supermarkets and IKEA. [re]design’s website has an encouragingly long list of eco-designers. None of these examples will single-handedly generate ‘the breakthrough’ but we should never underestimate the potential of collective effort.
I have asked a number of friends working as Designers both in-house and in consultancies about sustainability in their work. In general it seems that it’s a top down approach, with requirements (if any) for sustainability coming from management or direct from the client. There is also a push-back against the extra work perceived to be involved in researching and/or qualifying new materials, suppliers and manufacturers. And of course, the responsibility does not lie solely on designers’ shoulders. They are, after all, governed by the creator of the design brief to which they work. But I don’t think Designers feel empowered, are encouraged enough, or realise that they can influence and implement positive changes in this field. Even small ones. There is a general lack of sustainability expertise and awareness in Design, perhaps due to its being a relatively new topic, but the gap is gradually closing.
There is a LOT to be positive about and there are successful sustainable products, business models and approaches to take inspiration from. As designers we just need to realise that we can do something, that it doesn’t have to mean compromise and that any effort we can make, no matter how small, contributes towards a positive future. Let me know what you think.