Approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked in’ at the concept design stage, giving a clear case for designers to be agents for positive change. With all the information and tools now available, designers have the opportunity to play a major role in reducing the flow of materials. Categorised as ‘bulky waste’, most end-of-life furniture will not fit through the machinery of the incinerators and with its complex layers and mix of materials it is hard to recover and will end up in landfill.
In the words of Victor Papanek in his book, Design for the Real World, ‘only a small part of [the designer’s] responsibility lies in the area of aesthetics.’
Papanek’s theory lays out the twin pillars of ecological and social responsibility and design today must be based around the theory of circularity; designing things that enable us to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use (re-use and repair), then recover and regenerate the materials at the end of each service life.
Designing around a model of longevity with repair and take-back services is the often the best design approach for furniture.
In order to start considering how to reduce your impact, you need to know what it is. The ecological rucksack of your product is so much bigger than the carbon emissions output of your factory or studio. Your calculations could take into account other factors, for instance including the emissions produced by those that make your raw material - the leather tanner, the tree cutter, the cattle farmer - all the way through to those that recycle your product at the end of its useful life.
Arm yourself with your supply chain data. Map it, draw a useful boundary around what you want to know and pick up the phone. Gathering this information will give you a benchmark from which you can set yourself some targets and you will find out where you need to focus your attention. Be brave and publish your ambition. A few years ago, it would have been seen as suicide if a company exposed its raw data, now this transparent practice is applauded and will soon be standard.
Your information and data can help your suppliers and clients understand their footprint. The interior fit out and furniture analysis done through SKA rating may add points to the architect’s BREEAM or LEED submissions. It is estimated that interiors and building fit-outs can equate to approximately 20% of a building’s carbon footprint.
Recent environmental events and unprecedented disasters make it even more vital that our actions try to reverse the causes of mass extinction and environmental crises. As designers and makers, we depend on the natural systems which now sit in a fragile and precarious states. The UN millennium Ecosystems Assessment found that ‘human actions were depleting the earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystem to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted’.
Understanding how we can influence consumer behaviour and engage people in sustainable thinking is key, design really does matter. Our products can be storytellers, demonstrating the better way to do things by showing the principles of sustainability in the practice of design.
The consequences of, as Papanek describes it, ‘designing whole new species of permanent garbage [that] clutters up the landscape’ are more visible than ever before, in our oceans and forests and landscapes. Take heed and change your ways. Use your design to demonstrate a better path and tell the positive story.
4. Question Everything, especially the status quo.
In the book, The Frugal Innovator, Chris Leadbeater writes, ‘In the 20th Century industrial capitalism pulled off an amazing trick. It used more resources than had ever been used in human history – coal, iron ore, oil, water– to create more products for more people and yet at the end of the century’s end prices of basic resources were 50% lower than they had been in 1900.
In the present century we will have to pull off an even more staggering trick: to create goods and services for an even larger middle class while attempting to limit a potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures and using basic commodities that may well become difficult and costly to acquire.’
We cannot continue to create things without questioning its existence and understanding the social and environmental impacts. There must be a reason why an object is created; to tell a story of a material, to show the skills of a crafts-person, or fulfil a real need not just a want or desire.
Designers must lead the conversations and ask the slightly mad questions, be unafraid of being radical and adopt the Frugal Recipe: lean and simple, clean and social.
5. Materiality: Understand the impact of your design.
Braungart and McDonough’s seminal book, Cradle to Cradle considers what you would find when looking into a landfill; ‘old furniture, upholstery, carpets, televisions, clothing, shoes, telephones, computers, complex products and plastic packaging’ made from valuable materials that required effort and expense to extract and make.
The linear cradle-to-grave model dominates modern manufacturing and the statistics are shocking. Approximately 90% of the raw materials that go into making durable products become waste even before the product leaves the factory. Our lifestyles are so dominated by disposability that, according to environmental journalist Richard Girling, approximately 80% of what is made gets thrown away within the first six months of life. This is the linear economy in action – a one-way system of resource extraction, product design, creation and sales and eventually thrown away somewhere.
Designing for circularity is not just about changing the product, it requires a system re-think and the industry requires the ambition to change. Look for creative ways to find new raw materials, re-use your waste or recover it or make energy. Find other companies that could use it as a raw material once again.
Building your business on strong ethical and social foundations will need a grounded vision. To engage with universal sustainability businesses must go beyond the manufacturing operations and into the ecosystem of the community surrounding it.
Securing more long-term opportunities and building a positive future for your community can be done in many ways; investing into the local infrastructure, helping to build a skills-bank or supporting local small enterprises.
These actions build a sense of social obligation as well as developing long-term, trusting relationships where resources are efficiently shared, skills are recorded and passed on and ideas spread and grow.
People are shifting from mindless to meaningful consumption, looking for more purpose in the objects they own. Good design business enables designers to invest their creativity into products that hold value, instead of quickly being discarded into the waste stream.
Do more than make stuff. This is the true sense of good business.