Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Rethinking Stuff

Rethinking Stuff
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In a post this past summer, I started to talk more about my concerns related to climate change. I also brought up what I feel are large-scale systematic problems with how we, as a species, engage with the planet. A few said I was being overly political, and that I presented very few viable alternatives.

A short preamble

I will stress that such remarks came from a very small number of people, and that I had anticipated receiving them. On one forum, I did remind some critics that it was just one post, and that it made more sense to separate such thoughts into future articles. Today’s is one of those, and I hope just the start of many to come. (Besides, this blog was starting to feel a little repetitive and I’m happy to push it into some new areas.)

Some may feel that I’ve abandoned the mandate of this blog by leaning into discussions surrounding sustainability and more socially focused work. I’d simply respond that there’s a lot more to design than posters and identity systems, and that there are plenty of people already sharing thoughts on better design process and running a studio. While I’ll still talk about such topics from time to time, I think the overall level of design discourse should increasingly take into account bigger problems and how we can shift good intentions into practical action.

I admit to being a hypocrite

I’m writing this while en route to Vancouver, after talking to a large number of designers in Argentina about Design Can Change. I’m “bragging” a little here. Truth of the matter is that this was a group of around 6,000 people, and I’m still quite excited to have been included. More than that, it makes me very happy to have been able to engage with that many people in a discussion on sustainability and design.

Such trips do come with some concern only my behalf. Getting in a plane to fly across a couple of continents to talk about fighting climate change is ironic at best, and really, rather outlandishly perverse. On these flights I’ve been handed countless napkins (which seem to disappear before they can even be used), plastic cups, disposable cutlery sets, and even an on-board magazine talking about sustainability—with a notable article on how Continental is going to get greener. While I applaud any such initiatives, it seems a little like me getting involved in an anti-alcohol campaign. Something there just doesn’t equate.

I justified this trip, the associated carbon cost, and the numerous disposable items involved, with the fact that I was likely doing more good by engaging others in this discussion than by not going. Nevertheless, this is just an excuse, and I won’t be able to use it when I travel to Denmark later this month to talk about Speak Human. I’m not entirely sure how I reconcile this, and while I appreciate the notion of using carbon offsets to “wash away my sins,” that’s a whole other (complicated) discussion.

How hard it is to opt-out

I remain frustrated by how difficult it is to opt-out of consumption. I’m not talking about going off the grid and living off my own sweet potatoes or anything—I’m referencing the little, but actually not so little, stuff. For example, I’d like to keep my plastic cup for at least the duration of my flight—if not for the next one as well. I don’t want a bag with my purchase, and sometimes I want to buy something small without the “free gift.”

While I do find this getting a little (but certainly not much) better at home in Vancouver, what I’ve seen in my travels, is quite the opposite. My brief foray into Latin America felt like a step back in time, in which my choice to not take a plastic bag (even at the conference where I spoke about sustainability) seemed very difficult for people to understand, “no, no, no… you ‘need’ to take a bag.”

I understood this a little better, though, as my bus passed a shanty-town containing people who clearly had more immediately pressing matters to face than I ever have. What’s strange to me is Boston, or Philadelphia, or New York. Oh Christ—New York! The city of cities, yet, the notion of recycling seems alien there. It’s one thing for developing nations to be struggling with this, but in the United States? Egads!

New York, I love you… (but I wish more of your inhabitants loved the planet too).

People just don’t think that way

The tough part with consumption is that it’s how we’re programmed. 100 years ago we didn’t consume stuff the way we do now. Heck… 50 years ago we didn’t go through it like we do now. Consumption and our single serving culture has become the absolute norm, and we’ve become so accustomed to it that it almost seems weird to do anything else. (Our current way of living would likely seem sickening to someone who lived a few generations ago.)

There are a lot of platitudes that we spew about with good intentions but little else. One of my favorites is “less is more.” While I certainly appreciate the notion, a quick look about immediately reminds us that the opposite is more commonly held as truth. Just look at all-you-can-eat buffets, 3 for 1 offers, and the language we use in our advertising. Whether you agree or not, the majority clearly agrees that more is more, and that it’s also better.

I’m constantly at odds with my ballooning mid-section, and sometimes request half-orders or smaller portion sizes in order to battle this (at least, when I’m being really “good”). The funny part is that it’s almost impossible to get less. Kitchens seem to work with set sizes in mind and simply deliver what the formula calls for, regardless of what you request. Meanwhile, if they’re dolloping out a serving for you and you do say, “no, that’s enough,” they tend to think that you’d really like more, and that they’re doing you a favor by loading up your plate.

This is almost the same everywhere. We just don’t understand that less is sometimes what people actually want.

Changing the mindset

There are a lot of interesting concepts out there for making large-scale efforts to rapidly affect climate change. Some involve injecting sulfur-aerosol into the stratosphere, with the use of commercial air-carriers, in order to reflect some sunlight, therefore slowing global heating. Others suggest actively embracing nuclear power because of how fast it is to activate coupled with how much energy it can create with only limited emissions. Others propose placing big tubes in the ocean to circulate water. (This last one seems rather contentious.)

All of these sorts of notions are exciting and make for compelling reading, but, there’s almost nothing I can contribute to that effort. Sure, I can vote for more green-minded representation in  government. Or, I can join with like minds to lobby government to embrace more strict regulations when it comes to those who pollute, as well as greenhouse gas emissions in general. Still, the big scientific breakthrough we need will not come through my brain, of that I rest assured.

The nice part with a problem this big is that there’s room for all of us to do our part. I’m in the idea and communication business, and I feel that the most important thing I can come to the table with is this skill-set. While I’d still take on a gig to sell soda (ugh), the part I’m really interested in is how we use our capabilities to challenge this default setting that we have surrounding excessive consumption.

Categories of stuff

One of the things that I feel really strongly about is the need to find how things can better fit in our lives, both for the sake of the environment and ourselves. By no means am I suggesting we should avoid material goods entirely, I just think we need better options, and to think more carefully about what “buckets” we sort these objects into.

The most unfortunate part about excessive consumption is how it has stripped so much of the joy out of acquiring new things. Part of this relates to our illusions relating to more. I like scotch. Curiously, while one glass tastes great and the second is generally rewarding, after that I find myself in the realm of diminishing returns (and rather unpleasant headaches the next day).

An object coveted for a period of time, and then acquired after some deal of thought, can prove quite a meaningful experience. The next such purchase is less rewarding, and we see this experience compounded wherever availability and frequency of acquisition are found. When my dad bought us our first computer, I woke up early every day for weeks to play with it. I can no longer remember how many computers I have owned, and the novelty of new ones dissipates within days, if not hours.

Surprisingly, availability becomes an unanticipated bummer.

Something special

My answer for this is the first bucket: this contains the items that we intend to cherish. In my mind (these are just my opinions, after all) these are the kinds of purchases that should be incredibly infrequent and carefully contemplated. While you can own a wristwatch that’s personally significant, and perhaps be passed on to future generations as an heirloom, having two just wouldn’t be the same.

For objects we intend to cherish, it seems to make sense to hold out for the item that best meets ones needs, to some extent, regardless of price. So, instead of rushing to IKEA to buy an office chair that will likely fall apart beneath you, perhaps it’s worth holding out for a Herman Miller Eames Aluminum Group chair. Your bum will likely be very happy, and if you work at a desk, the investment, of around $1,600, really isn’t that outlandish.

Besides, in the 30 years you sit on to that chair, you’ll likely have spent less than you would have on the pretty—but crappy—IKEA models that would have needed to be replaced every year or two. Added bonus? Your Herman Miller will still be worth as much, or perhaps more, than what you paid for it, while keeping some (probably not so good stuff) from going into landfills. Incidentally, my criticism of IKEA chairs is largely informed by personal experience. Pure suckage.

Things you can fix

There are a number of things out there that clearly make life nicer, even if they are not the kinds of possessions you’ll make a provision for in your will. This is, in many respects, one of the hardest of the buckets to fill these days, simply due to the current consumer products model we participate in, along with deceptive design, and one’s need to remain terribly patient to find a really well built product.

In the 1960s my parents received a toaster as a wedding gift. It remains a somewhat mythical object in my mind, and a perfect example of just how flawed the consumer products category currently is. That toaster, until sometime in the 1990s toasted a few slices of bread almost every day without fail. When it finally did give in to this regular use, my dad took it into his workshop and fixed it. Given that it was a mechanical device and largely comprised of metal, this wasn’t so difficult.

We received a toaster-oven a few years ago as a gift, and it’s promise of convenience led us to abandon that old model, which Mom and Dad lent to me when I moved into my first home. Our new one was nice, as it would allow us to toast larger pieces easily; nevertheless, within a year or two it was broken and, given its flimsy construction, impractical to fix. I talk to so many people who echo this sentiment: it’s just easier to replace things than to repair them.

What makes this really difficult is that the replacement parts are so hideously overpriced. Or, let’s clarify here, by externalizing costs on the production of most consumer goods, the prices we see on certain items are artificially low. Therefore, when we do see the real price of replacement parts, we’re left perplexed by the disparity. We shouldn’t be, and some of these costs are paid by us directly. Part of this cost is revealed to us in time. For example, we learn how deceptive design can be when metal items fray and reveal themselves to be painted plastic. These things are often effective in fooling us into thinking that we might be buying quality.

The answer here is simple, but perhaps less appealing to some: it’s time for us to have a bucket for fixable purchases. This means that we need to spend disproportionately more for those few objects that are well built. While the price may initially be higher, the long term value is also much greater. If more of us hold out for such products, manufacturers will notice demand in the marketplace and start to build objects like they should, which will conceivably lower the per unit costs over time.

Consumer demands are very powerful, and one of the very strong tools the everyday citizen can leverage to reduce harmful waste.

Old, cheap, and free

If you have even a moment to spare, you can buy used objects to your heart’s content (often at a small fraction of the original asking price) while having very little negative impact on the environment. For example, something like 70% of the books in bookstores are returned to the publisher and shredded (or sent to discount resellers). Depressing, isn’t it? So, for every book you buy in a bookstore, conceivably 2 or 3 are destroyed. Meanwhile, all the books need to be shipped (twice for those that are returned to the publisher), which means an awful lot of fossil fuels being burned.

Go to your local used bookstore, or flea market, and you can get most of the same books, in addition to rare editions, most times at a substantial savings. And, you can do this with no weight on your conscience as the associated environmental impact of these books is nominal. Better yet, look at that bookshelf of yours and consider turning it into a library that you can share with friends. Most books aren’t even cracked, and admit it, you’re unlikely to read most more than once. You know, you can say “no” to hoarding.  ;-)

Vintage isn’t just for hipsters

I’ve grown to hate mass produced furniture and decorative items. In my mind, there’s little that says, “bereft of culture,” quite like selecting the things you surround yourself with from a catalogue. I hate to mock IKEA again, but tell me you don’t feel like sheep when you walk through the place, or find yourself at a friend’s house containing the exact same furniture, “Hey Bill, I see you have some items from the 2003 IKEA collection. That’s some darned fine glue and sawdust there!”

In recent years, we’ve seen the vintage movement take hold in Vancouver, and I suspect it’s not all that different in many other places. The nice part of this is that it starts to once again associate real value on things that may not be the flavor of the month. This is, after all, how it always should have been, even if it hasn’t for the past couple of decades.

The downside is that in areas like the one surrounding our office, some merchants have taken advantage of this trend. A few have learned that putting the word “vintage” on a less than exemplary object allows them to mark their price up ten-fold. (Nope, regardless of the description, that wire rack is still just a wire rack.)

The nice part is that you generally just need to take a few steps off the beaten path to find some real treasures. My wife and I are quite fond of a little strip of shops in New Westminster, where we can pick through a mixture of duds and gems from the past century. The best items here tend to be better built, more interesting, and far more affordable than any newly built furniture.

Vintage, of course, isn’t limited to furnishings. Vintage clothing, for example, has become a staple amongst certain populations. In itself, I find this rather silly, but I do love the idea of things having a value beyond what’s fashionable. I also like how it rewards those items that wear well. Good denim and leather look better with time, and well-designed items look like they have character as they show some blemishes.

Intangibles and nothing

In the developed world, we are starting to define ourselves more by what we’ve done than what we have. This isn’t an indication of some sort of cultural maturity or collective self-awareness. On the contrary, it’s simply a side-effect of our affluence.

The truth of the matter is that almost everyone in North America, for example, can have almost anything if they want it badly enough. A used Porsche can be had for around $20k, a Mercedes can be leased for a few hundred dollars a month. A pretty good iPod costs one or two hundred dollars. Meanwhile you can rent expensive “luxury” handbags, and if you really want to eat at the best place in town, most can find some way to make that happen.

With this sort of availability, few really feel that special for having something their friends don’t. If you’ve spent a year in Nepal, directed your own independent film, or run a marathon, you’re in a bit different of a boat. Sure, others could do this, but given the level of personal commitment required, most won’t. Therefore, if you’re actually playing the, “look at me” game, it now becomes one of: Where have you been? What have you read? What have you done?

These are things you generally can’t hold or touch, and we see the value of intangibles extended with the emergence of digital activity. Where are your MP3s? Can you hold them? Didn’t think so. Do you care that you can’t? Again… didn’t think so. Last question: Do these songs have value to you? Precisely. We’re reaching a time in which something doesn’t have to be touched in order to be important.

This is a huge shift, and I think we’ll see our ideas of ownership change significantly as a result of it. We’ll find ourselves embracing the idea of owning less, and renting or borrowing more. All it will take is for more of us to acknowledge that we still want the experience, but without the inconvenience of the container.

The new disposables

My last bucket contains the objects we need to dispose of in one fashion or another. Some things will be recycled, a few upcycled, a few downcycled, and many simply tossed in the trash. Product lifecycle is an area in which I believe we’ll see massive change in the years ahead, for the betterment of both ourselves and our planet.

Part of this relates to the end of the truly stupid. I don’t care who you are, if you don’t think that our disposable culture is completely untenable, you may be suffering from some kind of a cognitive defect.

Honestly, we have a plastic island—somewhere between the size of Texas and the continental United States—floating around our oceans. It kills wildlife, poisons our waters, and is a testament to the worst our species has to offer. How you remain an executive at a company that produces this shit without just putting a bullet in your head is an absolute fucking mystery to me. Then of course, every time we pick up a bottle of soda, we’re complicit in the whole deal, so, who am I to talk?

Plastic bags, single serving butter packaging, disposable coffee cups, and bottled water and soda cans simply have to go. Not in a decade, but now.

“Indra Nooyi reduces carbon footprint by 95%—named CEO of the century”

Imagine that headline. I bet that’s just the sort of thing that you could use on your resume, right? Well, I want to chuck a little idea out there.

The CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi, has been talking about just how important sustainability and health are. I’m still not quite sure if she’s jumping on the bandwagon, or, if she’s really motivated to make such change, but I can say that I certainly think more of their company due to their Refresh Everything exercise, and the compostable bags used in new packaging of Sun Chips (err… scratch that).

I’d like to put out a challenge to Ms. Nooyi. I don’t know if it can be done, but Heaven knows you folks have the money to find out. Couldn’t Pepsi somehow be delivered in a powdered format, so that drinkers could just add the mix to some water in their own bottle? Sure, the notion of a powdered drinks sounds a lot like Crystal Lite, which never seemed that palatable to me—but if Starbucks is willing to take a stab at instant coffee with the Via line, there must be some possibility of success.

Perhaps I’m being crazy here, but I never thought they’d be able to deliver a Guinness with a head until they started shipping those cans with a CO2 widget inside. Certainly such a notion can’t be completely unrealistic?

If you do find a way to do it, you could reduce your shipping costs to a fraction of what they are, while greatly reducing the carbon footprint associated with shipping soda around the world. My bet is that you’d also be seen as a hero by many. What do you think? Are you up for it?

I know better than to expect a response; Indra is clearly a busy person. My argument is simply that the new disposables will need to be designed to be far more efficient. In some respects, this will mean packaging that’s less materially intensive, while using more recycled (and recyclable) content. It also means increasingly finding ways to use organic materials in disposables, that will allow for easier composting.

Here’s another place where you can use your consumer power to affect change. Start blogging, tweeting, and writing letters to companies, telling them that you won’t buy their products until they make them more sustainably.

That same old question

I’m perpetually asked about design’s capacity for change and, typically, these discussions begin with talk about ink and paper. While any effort you’re making to reduce your impact is admirable, don’t think that vegetable friendly inks and 100% PCW (or FSC Certified) paper means you’ve done your part. It’s a start, but really, just that.

Our opportunity, as designers, is in the opportunity we have to change how people think and act. For us to really affect change, we need to actively engage in that discussion and push others into it before it’s too late. Meanwhile, we can’t be lulled into thinking that buying things marked as “green” will be our saving grace. We need to rethink all these things we think we “need” and, in the process, reprogram our entire value system.

My fellow designers, we need to change the game. The revolution must be designed.

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