Thursday, August 25, 2011

Design for All Generations

On my vacation last week, I read a copy of Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, a book about remaking the way we make things.

The book's main premise is that the way we manufacture nearly everything is inefficient and completely unsustainable for the environment long-term.  It reflects our history of purely opportunistic design that grew out of the needs and desires of the Industrial Revolution, and never questioned that the earth might be a finite resource.  While that lack of foresight was unintentional, it's resulted in tragic consequences: our air, waterways, and land is polluted, depleted, and packed with inefficient industry that takes from the Earth without giving anything back.

We all know this.  I was fully expecting to have that feeling of "Oh, this again?" and feel bad about my own consumption; however, Cradle to Cradle is ultimately all about ideas, innovation, solutions, and, of all things, hope.

Today, with our growing knowledge of the living earth, design can reflect a new spirit. In fact, the authors write, when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems—the effectiveness of nutrient cycling, the abundance of the sun's energy—they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist.
-Cradle to Cradle site.

Instead of placing the blame all on the consumer ("Consumers CONSUME!  Stop consuming consumers!"), the authors posit that many of our problems today are simply inefficient and uneducated design: the design of the products put into our marketplace do not consider the life cycle of the product, nor the life cycle of the resources that support the creation of that product, i.e. when we go to manufacture carpeting, we may not fully consider the efficiency of the energy needed to make it, the toxicity and sustainability of its ingredients, how the carpet off-gasses in the home once it's abraded by our feet,  how it will degrade in a landfill, the quality of effluents from the factory it was created in, how that factory itself was created and what it takes out of its landscape, plus the harm to its workers in working with toxic materials.

We didn't think about how massive production might hurt our earth; we always assumed she'd continue to correct our mistakes and keep giving to us.  But that time is rapidly coming to a close—we can no longer pretend that there isn't a cost to the health of our planet and to our health as a people.

All of this can be addressed, the authors posit, with patience and thoughtfulness.  It just takes being willing to approach design without assumptions.  It means being willing to consider the life cycle of the product from start to finish, and incorporate ecologically intelligent design at every step.  The authors created a factory, for example, that used solar power, open windows, a living roof, a cooling system that cooled people, not the building itself, and a water cycling system that was so effective that the effluents were cleaner than the water coming in to the factory.  It was so successful that employees that left the company for a higher salary at the competitor's factory eventually returned—the factory was so pleasant, it was worth it to them to work for less money.


More and more companies are thinking about how to make a product the best it can be, not just "less bad" than it was.  In my favorite example of this "good" vs. "less bad", the authors asked how you would feel if you went over to a friend's home for dinner, and they presented you with a beautiful homemade meal that had "Now with less arsenic!" written on your napkin.

This firmly illustrates that we must not just settle for "less bad".  For removing more but not all toxic chemicals from our products.  That's certainly a necessary start, but it's not enough.  Why not entirely rethink the product so you don't have to include toxic chemicals, or all the filler chemicals that negate their effects?  We can have shampoo with 9 ingredients instead of 30, and that shampoo will be easier and probably cheaper to make, because you don't have to store, handle, and ship toxic chemicals or irritants.  And even if the better ingredients cost more, there's fewer of them, so less costly overall.

It all starts with design.  And that makes me hopeful, because I believe that good design can change everything. 

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