Sustainability is more than words
Q&A WITH ANDREW SIMPSON AND BLAKE LINDLEY
Brands Taking Positive Action is a three-part webinar series hosted by Frost*collective to showcase and share next generation sustainable thinking. We spoke to experts across industries to see what steps, as people and businesses, they’re taking – and we can take – to contribute to a more sustainable future.
“Sustainability by nature means operating in a way that’s perpetual and doesn’t impede the ability for future generations to use and drive value from the earth. We would hate to think that sustainability can justify consumption.”
Andrew Simpson is a self-initiated, hands-on industrial designer on a mission to show that design has the power to redefine business models, human systems and future generations to create a better tomorrow. Blake Lindley is an author, economist and expert in waste and resource management, the circular economy, energy efficiency and carbon reduction.
In our second episode, Andrew and Blake discuss how design can move sustainability forward and take us through the practical actions we can collectively take.
Has the definition of sustainability in your industry changed?
BL: For a long time, sustainability was about water and energy. Waste was the smelly thing in the corner that nobody wanted to know about, but we’ve come to realise the importance of that material system. In terms of pathways to net zero emissions, which is the bigger goal, the emissions-based framework sets an objective way of looking at things, which is 50% the energy system and 50% the production consumption system.
The concern now is that sustainability is at risk of being overused or misappropriated. Sustainability by nature means operating in a way that’s perpetual and doesn’t impede the ability for future generations to use and drive value from the earth. We would hate to think that sustainability can justify consumption.
If something is recyclable and you’re putting it in the recycling bin, the question really is why are you putting it there in the first place? Why do you have that item? Could we not have had a better design solution upfront to save that happening? Design is critical is leading to properly sustainable outcomes.
What are the main barriers to action in sustainability?
AS: As a university lecturer in sustainability, I see the burden that young students place on themselves to be the individual that’s going to produce the change that’s going to single-handedly turnaround an unsustainable practice, and that burden is far too large and it’s paralysing.
Paralysis in sustainability is because we have these huge economies that are all interconnected and the result of hundreds of years of development. And we have seven billion people. So, we have the contradiction of these huge juggernaut machines using really complex, interconnected systems, and a lot of the action that needs to happen is at the individual household level across billions of individual households. So, as a problem solver, it’s completely paralysing.
We need to acknowledge that in modern economies and societies of seven billion people, we’re very small parts of larger systems and that the narrative that one heroic individual is going to make a huge difference is no longer a lived reality. It’s about progress not perfection: that as a collective group of small individual actions, we produce great outcomes. We just need to balance our expectations of our ability to make change.
BL: One of my favourite quotes is, “A system is not a sum of its parts, it’s the product of its interactions.” We need to overcome the siloes. We have a acknowledge asymmetry and we’re all parts of this system, but we need to interact and share knowledge in a more intelligent way.
“It’s about progress not perfection: that as a collective group of small individual actions, we produce great outcomes.”
Which brands are setting the bar?
AS: Sustainability is change and change always introduces risk, which up to now has been a huge deterrent for large commercial businesses. But companies are starting to realise that the risk of inaction far outweighs the risk of taking action. A great example is Country Road, who I’m working with to create usable materials directly out of their waste systems to go back into the production of their products. The new CEO has a charter to implement sustainability throughout the business, and when it happens at the top level and is energised throughout the entire organisation, the speed and ability to change is substantial.
BL: The carpet industry is doing brilliantly, with a high level of Extended Producer Responsibility – essentially creating products that can be used again. Fashion retailers are beginning to host online resale portals for companies, which maintains the brand integrity, sets an accreditation and boosts confidence in the second-hand market. Reusing is better than recycling or buying new. KeepCup is also worth mentioning for its scientific, robust and communicative approach.
How can people feel more confident that they’re doing something that makes a difference?
BL: The world of eco labels is very challenging. By consuming, we’re having an impact, but we need to work with it. We need to be wary of burden shifting. For example, if we buy a washing machine that uses lots of recycled metal and we feel great about it, but it uses one-star energy efficiency and in its lifetime might perform more poorly than a machine made from new materials. So eco labelling addresses finite points along the lifecycle of a product and we need to be aware of that. Understanding the lifecycle of the product informs exactly what you need to do. We see a lot of well-intentioned but under-informed activity from brands, who are missing the opportunity to educate and communicate. The Environmental Product Declarations is a global lifecycle assessment process that offers broad product sustainability assessment.
Buying locally made products means we can set standards around how they’re made and our ability to control the manufacturing system, and it reduces the impact of shipping, as well as contributing to the local economy. And always remember: Avoid, Reduce and Reuse: recycling is one step above landfill, there are three other things we should be doing first.
“Understanding the lifecycle of the product informs exactly what you need to do. We see a lot of well-intentioned but under-informed activity from brands, who are missing the opportunity to educate and communicate.”
How do we create systemic change?
AS: Because of the nature of the problem – huge systems on one hand and the fact that the change has to take place at the individual level on the other – change has to come from the top down and bottom up – government and regulatory change, as well as individual change.
In terms of uptake, brands and large companies are often outpacing governments in their ability to operate beyond compliance. It’s about collaborating; organisations such as the Green Building Council in the property sector, come together to take competition out of the space and instead collaborate to set the bar for what’s not okay anymore.
What’s next for design?
AS: As designers, if we’re not considering a service option for a lot of products, then we’re not doing our job properly. A service rather than a product is often the most sustainable outcome. Product stewardship and eWaste are also a big part of design. Thinking about the need to pull a product apart at the end of its life changes the way we design it. This is becoming increasingly necessary in what we’re doing.
“If we’re not considering a service option for a lot of products, then, as desginers, we’re not doing our job properly.”
BL: Historically design was responsible for creating demand in a product. The future of industrial design is how do we use design to create demand for good. While your direct control can be limited, we all have extensive opportunities to influence, both directly and indirectly:
Direct influence – the way you wield your influence by asking the right questions and the way you inform your customers to understand these issues and make informed consumption decisions is critical. For example, the property sector is brilliant at teaming together the majorities of the market to make change.
Indirect influence – being a part of an organisation such as the Australian Fashion Council, for example, means you’re in the ear of the ministers and policy makers and understand the state level infrastructure required to make change.
And we should be treating landfill as a material library, because the majority of it is going to be exactly the same in 100 years’ time.
If you could change one thing in the design industry that would have the most impact on sustainability, what would it be?
BL: Food systems. Where our food comes from is so poorly understood. A friend once asked my dad where steak comes from – it’s amazing how detached we are from all these natural processes! Connection to and appreciation of our supply chains and where food comes from is something I’d love to change.
AS: The change would be not behaving in an intuitive way and be more data-led. Often sustainable outcomes requite proper data, research and science to make proper changes. I see designers who are interested in sustainability making decisions based on intuition, simply thinking that one material might be better than another. We need to stop and get people like Blake involved, get lifecycle assessments and the best data to make actual sustainable decisions.