Sustainable Lifestyles? How Design Can Lead Us to a Post-Disposable Society

This week I was invited to present at the United Nations Partnership For Action on the Green Economy (PAGE) Ministerial Conference in Berlin, Germany. In September 2015, the United Nations announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious set of 17 strategic goals for the advancement of sustainable development. Sustainable development refers to development that meets the needs of current generations without negatively impacting the ability of future generations to meet their own needs — it’s an ambitious aspiration that is finally coming to fruition globally. We are seeing citizen, political and industry leadership towards meeting the SDGs. Here is an excerpt of the talk I gave on Sustainable Lifestyles.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Everything you see around you has been created by humans and/or our technological creations, through a process of design. Look around you — the chair you are sitting on, the glasses you are seeing through, the devices sitting in your pocket, all of these are designed. Someone, somewhere has decided on how to take materials from nature and form them into a functional thing that has perceived value and is thus then used for a period of time before being discarded. This is how the linear system works, and it is inherently unsustainable.

We live in a world constructed by humans for human benefits, a designed world that designs us as much as we design it.

What we have managed to achieve through human ingenuity is actually quite incredible when you think about it. Yet all of this ‘stuff’ has a secret cost. Embedded in everything we create are hidden environmental and social impacts, which often go unnoticed. These hidden impacts are at the core of our collective unsustainability.

The majority of the social and environmental issues that we face today are a result of the design of the everyday products, services and systems that make up our societies.

This is why it’s vital that systems thinking, sustainability sciences and design approaches be integrated into all facets of decision making, from individuals through to business leaders and governments. We must revolutionize the way we create, so that all design is done the the intent to make positive and regenerative impacts, not accidentally (or intentionally) facilitate the perpetuation of externalities.

Design is a silent and powerful social scripter that influences every living being on this planet. That’s the power of the designed world — it designs us as much as we design it. If we want to move towards sustainability and regeneration, I don’t think focusing our energy on changing people’s behaviours will work. Instead, we need to shift cultural conventions around values and redesign the systems of production to normalize sustainable consumption.

This morning we heard about the issues of food waste — the UN reports that 8% of the world’s carbon emissions are attributed to it. When it comes to at-home food waste, people often point the blame at use-by dates and aesthetic standards, but we don’t talk much about the refrigerator — the product we all have sitting in our homes, attempting to keep food fresh. Refrigerators don’t do a very good job at their intended function; the crisper drawer, which is intended to reduce dehydration of fresh food, thus keeping it fresh, doesn’t work well because of the way it was designed. I’m sure we have all, at some point, been disappointed to find a limp carrot or soggy lettuce in the fridge. Simple design changes would prevent a huge percentage of these losses, dramatically reducing the issue of food loss at home.

Thankfully though, we are seeing progressive and pioneering leadership from within industry. Companies are starting to use design as a positive force — they have heard the call from consumers for products that don’t damage the planet and are upskilling their teams to be cognitively equipped to make the changes to their production and business models. Many have adopted the life cycle approaches needed to gain knowledge on greening their supply chains, many are pioneering shifts in procurement and are hiring the young creative thinkers who care about the impacts of the things they create and who dare to do things differently.

That’s currently one of the things we are working on through the experimental education initiative I founded, The UnSchool of Disruptive Design. The UnSchool equips emerging and established leaders with the thinking and doing tools of systems thinking, sustainability sciences and design approaches, so that they can understand and intervene in complex social and environmental issues globally.

We need more people equipped and activated to mine the complexity of the issues that we have been discussing over the last two days, and build creative interventions that green our global economies and power the policy initiatives needed to leverage real and lasting systems change.

Consumption is one of the biggest contributors to our current environmental problems. But every problem holds it’s own solution. The drivers of consumption can help redirect the status quo to more normalized sustainable development.

Each of us possesses great power. We carry with us ‘units of impact’ — every dollar, euro, pound, peso, rupee or real that we spend has influence on markets and sends signals back up the supply chain to the producers to indicate what types of goods and services we prefer. Don’t like what you see? Don’t buy it. We are all micro investors in the type of economy, and ultimately the type of future, we will end up living with.

We are all voting through our purchases. As individuals, as governments and as organizations, we can encourage or discourage industries, services and products based on what we want to see continue.

We already have so much of the knowledge on what needs to be done. Scientists in the fields of cycle assessment, environmental impact assessment, systems dynamics and consequential impact analyses, have been knowledge building for years, contributing to the rising circular economy movement.

We now have a much stronger understanding of the potential negative outcomes of our actions before we take them, and we can avoid unintended consequences if we approach problem solving through systems thinking.

This foresight allows us to integrate sustainability into the design of our business models, policies, products and services. What we need right now is the normalization and integration of these approaches into the things that make up our economy. And this requires pioneering leadership from governments and CEO’s as well as the creative thinkers who can help shift the status quo.

The cumulative effects of our individual lifestyle choices are shaped by the things we engage with, from the media, to social trends, world views, cultural conditions and yes, even political discourse. Now more than ever, we need political and industrial leadership. We need more pioneers pushing for systems change, by design.

We can speed up the change by incentivizing producers to approach product design differently — to use sustainable design approaches and life cycle assessment to help green supply chains and find unique ways of shifting the status quo on hyper-consumerism through the implementation of product-service system models.

Small choices, replicated many times, contribute to big impacts. This applies to all of our choices. Our world is made up of individuals operating as a collective whole. Through systems thinking, we understand the macro and the micro, the parts and the wholes. This thinking helps us gain a deeper understanding of our impacts and the power of influence that we all possess.

Unsustainability is currently perpetuated by the micro everyday actions of many people. Take, for example, the humble electric tea kettle. Many people overfill their kettles in part because of how they’re designed; the kettle tells you to fill it to the minimum fill line, which many people surpass, resulting in superfluous amounts water being boiled. All the extra water that gets boiled wastes energy — and lots of it!

Many of the ecological impacts, the externalities we see in the economy, have come about as a result of supply chain relationships — not just the end of life destination where things end up. Yet, much of our investment and activation is around waste management rather than on designing out waste from the start. We should (and can) be designing products, services and systems, that embed the avoidance of waste through their design, instead of designing things with no regard for their consequences and then trying to design services to deal with the waste and impacts they’ll cause.

This is the power of circular systems thinking and design-led systems change, and it’s rapidly rising through the advancement of the circular economy and all the sustainable design strategies we have at our disposal.

Globally, we are not just challenged by the pressing impacts of climate change, but also by resource depletion, habitat loss, biodiversity reduction, species eradication, water security, air pollution, bioaccumulation of toxins in the food chain and monocultures in our ecosystems. We all must breath air to survive and thus we all have a vested interest in sustaining the life support systems that make life on Earth, and each of our lives, possible.

We are seeing the most sustainability leadership from emerging economies like India, Morocco, Nairobi and Portugal. Meanwhile, the big consumer countries are playing a game of willful ignorance when it comes to the designs changes we need to implement, from the product to the city level.

Many of the issues we currently face boil down to bad communication, apathy and confusion. We have done ourselves a collective disservice by allowing our human life to become so removed from the natural environment, our education systems to be industrialized, and our prioritization to be skewed in favor of the goal of economic capital rather than the human, social and environmental capital that we all rely on to live healthy, happy and productive lives.

Everything is interconnected. The way we build houses, cities and infrastructure impacts human health in significant ways. For example, we see an increase in heart attacks and obesity in cities designed for car transport. But cities could instead be designed for a lifestyle of human connection, activity and community.

Our environment influences us in many subtle ways, scripting our behaviours and choices. If you only have access to a store that sells pre-packaged foods, as many people in the food deserts of industrialized countries do, then you’ll eat pre-packaged foods. No public transport? More people will drive.

In cities where we have advanced recycling systems, we see an increase in the use of disposable products, which increases the demand for raw materials. Even if they are indeed recycled, overall we have a net increase in life cycle impacts at the manufacturing and material extraction phases, as we are increasing the use of disposable products. This ‘end of life bias’ perpetuates more waste and validates disposability as the dominant consumer trend.

To make change, we don’t need to change individual behaviours — we need to change the conditions that people exist within. We can move to sustainable lifestyles by designing the new to make the old obsolete. This is what Disruptive Design is all about, design that changes systems at the root level, so that they grow into transformative change.

We need to move rapidly to a post-disposable society. The circular economy is helping to make this happen, influencing shifts in the finance sector and in the design of products and services we all rely on. Big players in industry and government are pioneering product-system services that will help to move us away from single use products and systems, to closed loop ones.

I predict that within 5 years the pioneering companies will have transitioned away from single use products to more integrated closed loop systems that maintain value within the systems design and that dramatically reduce the environmental and social burden that disposability results in.

Not only because it’s good for the planet, but also because it makes good business sense. In an increasingly resource-constrained environment, we have to find ways of reducing supply chain costs, and there are many creative ways to do this while benefitting the planet. The opportunities are on the horizon, we just need more activated minds willing to pioneer capturing them.

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