Sustainability: transformational change

An interview with Joost Bakker

Joost Bakker is an environmental visionary who turns radical ideas into reality.

His installations, artworks and pop up buildings demand attention and spark change. He is known for creating Australia’s first zero-waste cafe (Brothl), ‘Greenhouse’ pop up cafes in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth and building fire resistant houses from 100% recyclable materials. His ideas have been widely praised, shared and appropriated all around the world.

I spent an evening with Joost to find out what he thinks about sustainability, human behaviour and the role of technology.

K: Why do you think behaviours like reuse, recycle and upcycle are not fully accepted by society?

If you go back only 70 or 80 years, you didn’t throw anything away. Everything was reused and materials were made to last. Then oil became so cheap and so prevalent, that all of a sudden it became easy to throw stuff out.

You can’t walk anywhere in this city without seeing people walking around with takeaway coffee cups. What happened to just sitting down and having a coffee? Why can’t people just take the time, just five minutes, to sit down?

Everybody always uses the excuse, ‘I’m too busy’. They’ve got plenty of time to go on Instagram and Facebook but they don’t have time to sit down and have a coffee. I think the next generation will look down on that behaviour. People will be embarrassed to be walking around with a coffee cup.

K: How do you think change is going to happen?

There are people all over the world that have made society aware how stupid this behaviour is.

A venue called Easey’s has just opened in Collingwood. Everything is on tap. When they opened, the only thing they had in a can was Melbourne Bitter, because the brewer didn’t offer it on tap. Now cans are fine — when you throw an aluminum can into the recycle bin, 90% of the can’s materials are recovered, and they’re back on the shelf within three weeks. Aluminium can be recycled a million times without losing its properties.

But now Easey’s have even put Melbourne Bitter in kegs, so everything is on tap. It’s a change of culture in the next generation that comes from asking why.

Then there’s Miele, probably the most profitable and ongoing successful appliance company in the world. They create appliances that they say will last 20 years. It’s the complete opposite to what everyone else is doing and their business still grew by 5% last year.

They’re going down that path and creating appliances that are completely recyclable. They think it’s just crazy that we create so much waste. They are already sitting at 98% recyclable with their dishwashers and washing machines. In the not too distant future that will be 100%, so that each machine is endlessly recyclable.

K: So in that sense, what do you think has more impact? Individual, organisational or structural change?

I think change almost always starts with one individual. That person is the driver to start the catalyst. They inspire thousands of people around the world to change their behaviour.

K: What about people that are apprehensive about taking that step by themselves? Do you think if they see an organisation that’s doing something they’re more likely to get on board with that specific organisation?

That’s classic tribal behaviour: one person leads, the rest follow. That is the way humans behave. They see something they want, what the others doing, and they follow. The more leaders you get, the more people that follow. As much as collaboration is the latest and greatest word, you can always discover the one particular person that instigated the movement.

Over the last 500 years, the biggest changes have always started with one person that has just done something, usually by mistake.

A rice farmer was inspecting a rice crop infested with rust. He saw a perfectly healthy wild rice plant growing on higher ground right near all the rust infested ones. He realised that we actually kill soil biology by flooding it, because you deprive it of oxygen. Soil biology is richer, and the soil is porous and healthier, which means the plants are more resistant to pests and diseases. He was smart enough to realise the discovery he stumbled on. Most people step on a discovery because their eyes aren’t open to it.

K: How can people have their eyes open to discoveries?

I always say to my kids ‘look at this’ or ‘look at that’. I was lucky enough to have people to help me see things that I didn’t look at. There’s beauty everywhere and knowledge to be gained wherever you look. It could be a weed growing out of a crevasse, asking why that weed is doing so well, then being curious enough to find an answer. If you’re not aware or not open to new knowledge — which 99% of people aren’t — then you’ll miss the best discoveries.

Absolutely everything is interconnected. We are all so focussed on specialising. Universities and education is all about you have to specialise. Well, you can’t specialise, because whatever you do has an impact somewhere else. Architects should know the materials they’re using and surgeons should understand the implications of what they do. You can’t just take someone’s organ out expect that it’s not going to affect something else.

K: What has more impact: unique novel ideas that grasp people’s attention or ideas that subtlety fit in or nudge people’s existing behaviours?

My philosophy has always been, if people love the food they’ll come, and if it’s sustainable, then that’s a bonus. I think a lot of people go out of their way to make something incredibly sustainable but the experience isn’t quite there.

At Brothl, people would say, ‘You should have seen the butter, the butter was the best butter I’ve ever tasted’. I created that butter because I cultured it myself. We got the milk in bulk in stainless steel vats so there was no waste generated in how we did it. So the farmer profits, I profit and the customer loves it more because we’ve got this unique product rather than a generic butter product.

If I think about all the projects I’ve done, which one would the general public talk about the most, the one that probably gets the most talked about is the Greenhouse in Melbourne (2012). Why? Because I was harvesting urine.

The most impact was the one that was the most in your face and made people really stand up and say ‘woah’. So from a public awareness point of view, it’s probably doing something really in your face and controversial.

K: Have you seen people adopt these controversial ideas into their own world?

Yeah, they do. We harvested urine in 2012 and then the principal of Bentleigh Secondary College wanted those same toilets in his high school. He found a way to make that happen even though he couldn’t get a building permit because it was illegal. So the Greenhouse really set a path. To do that through legislation would have taken 15 years — but now it’s sort of forced people to do it and work it out.

K: So what’s more important: catalysing change or sustaining the momentum of change?

Sustaining the momentum. Think about the Woodstock era — in the 70s everyone was aware, then it died off and came back in the 80s. People think now is the first time this has happened, but it’s not. This has happened a few times.

I hope this time is not a flash in the pan and it dies off again. The difference between now and back then is social media and science. You’ve got people now talking about it and science to back it up.

People seem to love science. When a scientist says we need to take soil tablets because it is good for cognitive ability, we give kids soil tablets because there’s not enough soil in our food. That’s starting to happen now, which is crazy.

And sharing of knowledge is what is sustaining it. I can put a photo up on Instagram and then somebody likes it in New York or Copenhagen. You can do something totally unique right now and it’s a shared idea within minutes. At no point in history has that ever happened.

K: While people are getting behind sustainability, for many businesses, being more sustainable is an expensive exercise. What do you say to that?

Look at Google or Apple, companies that 30 years ago nobody could even dream they would have existed. Some of the worlds biggest companies like Exxon are dwarfed now because they’ve just done the same thing for 100 years. You’ve got to evolve if you want to be serious about growing.

Interviewed by Katie Potter, Service and Communication Designer at Thick.

Read more essays from the Thick team.