Emerging Designers and Major Brands Alike Are Redefining What It Means to be Sustainable
A new book, Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future, by London consultancy FranklinTill surveys a major shift in material thinking.
It’s hard to avoid the facts. The alarming rate at which plastic waste is polluting our seas—885 tons of plastic enter the ocean each hour, according to the World Economic Forum—is only matched by the equally distressing projection of how little of our natural resources are actually left. The implications of our throw-away culture are not only devastating for the planet but also our survival on Earth. How, in our rapidly expanding consumer society, can we become more conscious of the ways the products around us are manufactured, used, reused, and recycled?
In the past few years, the urgency of this dilemma has inspired designers to take responsibility for the impact of their creations. Many rising talents and entrepreneurs (featured in the slide show below) have defined or reoriented their practices toward material experimentation, creating composites that are biodegradable or derived out of upcycled waste. Some are also fundamentally reconsidering production methods and product life cycles.
London think tank FranklinTill has just released its book Radical Matter in the U.K. (the book is available for pre-order in the U.S.), and it is an extensive compendium that assesses the scope of this changed mindset. “We are at the brink of a potentially rich material revolution,” FranklinTill co-founder Caroline Till tells Metropolis, “a tipping point where designers, equipped with more knowledge, can explore radical approaches to re-thinking the ‘take, make, discard’ standard—not just the materials we’re using but also the systems we put them into.”
Radical Matter is divided into eight thematic chapters that move sequentially from, as Till describes, “the now” to the “near” and the “far” in terms of implementation. Projects that have already been successfully realized, like Sophie Rowley’s Material Illusions and Dave Hakkens’s Precious Plastic, appear in the first chapter, “Today’s Waste, Tomorrow’s Raw Material.” The last chapter, “Future Mining,” includes more speculative explorations, such as The Ocean Cleanup by Boyan Slat and Plastiglomerate Samples by Kelly Jazvac, both of which play with the idea of how we might mitigate the full impact of the Anthropocene, a term used to define the geological age in which man’s impact has significantly altered the makeup of the planet.
In between these bookends, chapters such as “Co-Creation” and “Designed to Disappear” present initiatives that innovate from within the current system rather than trying to shake it up entirely. For example, the online marketplace Open Desk connects local furniture makers to customers, creating an open source and “glocal” economic model for furniture production. Also highlighted is Japanese trio AMAM’s Agar Plasticity, a biodegradable alternative to plastic packaging. Because consumer habits are incredibly difficult to change, Till suggests that designers reframe their position toward patterns of consumption. “How can you use material innovation to enable people to consume quickly but without leaving a trace on the planet,” she asks.
In recent years some major brands have started pushing for similar goals. IKEA and Apple have established and publicized ambitious waste-management goals, based on the principles of a closed-loop production model. While IKEA has released a number of new products that are manufactured using upcycled waste materials, such as the Odger chair—produced using a composite of renewable wood and recycled plastic—Apple has introduced a high-tech robot that can systematically separate and sort the components of old iPhones. These initiatives should be part of the ethics and culture inherent to these companies, says leading sustainability expert, Cradle to Cradle author William McDonough. But these are not sufficient measures, he adds—there remain plenty of obstacles for these global brands in helping to enact fundamental change.
Nevertheless, McDonough, like Till, is optimistic that a major shift is already in play. “When we first introduced the ideas of Cradle to Cradle in the early 1990s, people saw sustainability as a form of maintenance; meeting compliancies; and simply trying to be less bad,” he recalls. Today’s young designers—more attached to values and less egocentric than their forerunners—are different, as “it’s obvious that they need to design products that can be recycled.”
For Ewan McEoin, an environmental scientist and curator at National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, this up-and-coming generation would do well to move away from the Modernist notion that design can only serve as a tool of industry. “We need a new mode of practice,” he says, “that can be speculative, as a means of sparking awareness, but that is also responsible for what is put out into the world.”
Combining both criteria, in 2016, McEoin commissioned Amsterdam-based Italian design duo Studio Formafantasma to develop a project that investigated the depletion of natural metal resources through mining. But the work, called Ore Stream, also explored how metal waste that flows through the environment could potentially serve as a new source of raw material. To test its idea, the studio designed a model office system made of recycled and recyclable metal components, which was mounted as part of the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial this past winter.
The point on which the project turned, McEoid notes, was precisely the reality of the recycling process. “When looking at how metal is recycled, they discovered the total disconnection between the design and recycling process. Most designers are clueless to how they’re products are going to be recycled.” This, he adds, makes it near impossible for them to understand how they could better use materials from the outset and even employ waste materials as an abundant and renewable resource.
Though the road is long, McEoin, like Till and McDonough, is confident that change is happening. “In the next 20 years, we need to be in a scenario where everything that is design can be fundamentally recycled or upcycled.” Clearly, some designers and brands are starting to get the message. When will the rest?