“Celebrate life, rather than minimise damage”, a perfect rallying cry to kick off Clerkenwell Design Week from Professor Michael Braungart, speaking at the launch of the SCIN Gallery‘s new Green Room.
Clerkenwell is home to more creative businesses and architects per square mile than anywhere else, and as this design week celebrates ever more brands, more product launches and more visitors, the #Being Human talk reminded us that beneath the superlatives, materials are the basis or everything. As a chemist, and co-author, with William McDonough, of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002), Braungart is perhaps the ultimate materials boy. Readers of that key sustainability text will know that materials provide the foundation for a “transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design.”
Braungart began by debunking a few eco-design fallacies. He cautioned us not to romanticise nature, “the most toxic chemicals to us are the most natural chemicals”. Neither should environmental considerations be presented as the ethical option, abandoned under conditions of stress. Timothy Devinney’s thorough description of “The Careless Consumer” in a recent article for the RSA Journal explained the attitude-behaviour gap “if you are attempting to sell an ethical product you cannot expect individuals to sacrifice any aspect of the other things that matter”, such as price and quality.
Conventional design approaches to environmentalism have focused reducing, reusing and recycling. World Business Council for Sustainable Development coined the term eco-efficiency in “Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment”, “It is going to be next to impossible for a business to be competitive without also being ‘eco-efficient’ – adding more value to a good or service while using fewer resources and releasing less pollution”. Becoming more eco-efficient has bolstered many businesses’ bottom line, and had a beneficial environmental impact.
However, efficiencies only slow down the rate of depletion or destruction. This is what John Mathers, CEO of the Design Council described as “disjointed incrementalism” (in a recent article, “Design Intervention”), and often leads to perverse outcomes. When the EU banned asbestos from brake pads several major car manufacturers advertised their products as “free-from” asbestos. But, antimony sulphide, a stronger carcinogen, was substituted for asbestos. Products designed without their end of life in mind are usually ‘down-cycled’ as contaminants lower the quality of recycled materials. Neither do efficiencies always reveal their full impact. Braungart provided many examples of “products plus” where you get the product you bought, plus additives you did not, such as a polyester shirt containing toxic dyes that leach into your skin when you sweat.
“Less bad” is an underwhelming goal, and not an inspirational brand value. Braungart reminded the designers and architects in the audience that efficiencies rarely make hearts sing. Design for eco-effectiveness, rather than eco-efficiency.
In nature, waste equals food, and so too in the Cradle-to-Cradle design paradigm. Safe materials are disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients in two distinct, closed-loop systems. The biosphere contains products for consumption, such as food, books, textiles, that are made of renewable materials that can be safely returned to water or soil without synthetic or toxic contaminants. Braungart and McDonough’s latest book, “Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance” is one of the first to be printed from materials that could be safely composted or burnt, as this video from the printer, Gugler, explains.
In contrast, in the technosphere, non-renewable materials are fully recycled into high-quality service products for generations. For example, Orangebox’s Ara ‘task’ (office) chair uses materials and assembly techniques that make it easy to repair and completely recycle. Desso take back their own carpets, and those of competitors. The yarn and backing are separated into two material streams, the yarn is recycled, and the bitumen backing used as raw material for roofs or roads.
A point of differentiation with the circular economy framework is Braungart’s emphasis on continuous improvement. Circular economy diagrams illustrate technical materials cascading through loops of maintenance, reuse, refurbish to recycle. At the heart of the Cradle-to-Cradle is the intention to design for environmental health and abundance, “a rich human experience with all that entails—fun, beauty, enjoyment, inspiration and poetry.” In the SCIN Gallery’s Green Room, Trash Surface Bureau’s beautiful and playful glass tiles and slabs reflect this design intention. The products are created from the local collection, processing, and transformation of glass in central London’s Soho.
At the micro, or company level the Cradle-to-Cradle principles are: material health; material reutilization; operations powered by renewable energy; and water stewardship. The fifth principle of social fairness, celebrating all people and natural systems, aspires to macro-level transformation. In the Netherlands, a cross-sectoral network of organisations called Nutrient Platform signed an agreement in 2011 to close the nutrient cycle and end the imports of phosphate fertilisers by 2020. Phosphates are recovered from sewage, sludge and municipal organic waste and manure to be processed into products such as fertilizers. There is less waste, less use of fertilizer and less contamination of surface water. Excess phosphate can be exported, and agriculture has a more secure supply chain. Government has a clear role to play, setting transparent, long-term, stable policies that create a framework for abundant growth. We all have a role to play, defining how we want to live, in five or twenty years time. We need to redesign not just products but systems, through dynamic public policy, cross-sectoral collaboration and transparency of environmental and social impacts. Braungart challenged the Clerkenwell Design Week community to become co-creators in abundance.
Image credits: SCIN Gallery; Prof Michael Braungart