Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sustainability from the Ground Up.

 Today is Earth Day, and I always have mixed feelings about that. When I was younger - a high-school student, starry-eyed and idealistic - each year was a new chance to rally people to the cause. A few years on cynicism and it's a day of green-washing, lip service, and singular feel-good activities. How does an activist spread the ethos of care into the other 364 days of the year?
Pictures from the first Earth Day, 1970

If I had the perfect answer to that I would be out on the streets, leading the charge. Instead, I am here to encourage the makers, the creative types, to think sustainably in their creations. Here's the simple, easy things to think of for sustainable design.
 1.)What is it made from?
        Obviously, this is where it starts. Let's say you have a great product idea, and it's gonna help people save water/conserve energy/not waste food etc... but it's made out of plastic and packaged in styrofoam. New materials are helping to solve this problem, but I opine that returning to simple natural materials is always the best choice!

2.)What happens when it breaks?
        Is the item made to last? Can it be fixed? Can it be repurposed? Seed paper cards are an example of an item that has an explicit second life.

3.)Where does it go to?
         This is where that nasty plastic causes problems, but any material can be a problem if there's nothing to do with a broken or worn-out item but throw it away! Can it be reused or recycled? Composted? Cradle to Grave is the ethos of designing an "afterlife" for an item.

4.)Does it work?
     This can be overlooked by a greenwashing company. Story time - back in the late 90s when the first bioplastic were appearing on the market my mother bought a few packs of corn plastic pens and permanent markers. How proud we were! Early adopters who are reducing our impact! Of course, the pen part didn't work for crap. So concerned, was that company, with making and marketing the bioplastic outers, that the insides of the pen were shoddy and non-functioning. If the product doesn't work very well or breaks right away, then no matter what it is made from it is not sustainable!

5.)How is it made?
     The other downside of those early bioplastics (see why I prefer natural materials?), was the manufacture. It involved toxic chemicals, those chemicals were not always handled properly, the energy required to manufacture was much higher than petroplastics. Problems like this lead to the idea of sustainability as a complex system! If an item pollutes when it is made, that's the same as if it pollutes when it is thrown away!

6.)Who makes it?
     Here's the tough part for many big companies, we handcrafters got this down pretty well. If an item is not socially responsible then it is not sustainable. This is not simply a matter of morality - oppressive systems are not stable or sustainable. And pushing people into poverty often forces them to make choices that are environmentally harmful and destructive to their culture and society. But handmakers must also be responsible about this! What are we outsourcing? What processes are they using? Are we charging enough for our time and talents?

7.) How is it used?
     Let us not forget the most important aspect of design - is it useful? What do we use it for? It drives me crazy to see the piles of "recycling" ideas that turn a throwaway item into a nominally decorative piece of bric-a-brac. I mean, sure, a few decorative vases is fine, and a pen cup or two made from old containers covered in pretty paper or such... but how many can you have in your house? And the item that is only decorative? That's like a garbage denial system, we store it on the walls and shelves awaiting it's inevitable doom. Good sustainable design make useful items that we want to use in environmentally responsible ways!

Happy Earth Day everyone! From a crabby environmentalist, and Crafty Bitch.

1 comment:

Tom Sarmo said...

Nice post--I needed this refresher!