Can design save the world?

by Oscar Taylor

If the general election was a thermostat of the hottest social and political issues then climate change has gone cold on planet UK-2015. Even the Green Party, traditionally driven by perfectly rational climate-terror, was limp as a windsock in the gusts of public opinion and the media. Finally given a massive platform during the televised debates, they flopped towards the centre ground, allowing climate-change minimal airtime. Professor Peter Wadhams, of the University of Cambridge, rightfully branded their Earth-advocacy during the campaign a “disgrace”.

It’s a disgrace because informed environmentalists, like you would hope the Greens are, and which Professor Peter definitely is, know just how f**ked we all are and are aware of the rapidly accelerating time-frame of the aforementioned f**kery. No longer about our children’s children, it’s becoming clear that it is my generation who will be living in an ecologically unstable, politically unpredictable and very hot world, warmed by several degrees at least.

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs approximately, 75% of UK consumers’ carbon emissions come from the use of products and services. To paraphrase a superhero, this statistic places Great Power and Great Responsibility with the designers and creatives behind those products and services. We need to consider the entire life-cycle of a product and its collateral too. The journey from use, down the U-bend of obsolescence, to the murky world of waste management needs to become our focus.

It’s not like the design world isn’t full of beautifully green ideas. Sustainable design can not only radically change materials and their environmental impact but also revolutionise behaviour. Excluding yurt-based, wild-mushroom foraging environmentalists even the most well meaning green lives a conflicted, often hypocritical life. Occasionally the only apples available are shrink wrapped. Sometimes we need the latest smart phone. You know. For work. Great design can anticipate and think through and around these behavioural issues. It can allow us to upgrade a modular Lego-like mobile or, through a recent print campaign for a French supermarket, give the ugliest fruit and veg the lime-light rather than the bin.

I work for a small, ethically driven agency, which attracts news of the latest design developments (translation; we spend a lot of time on the internet), solutions which are always elegant and often sustainable. However, sustainable design rarely seems to reach far beyond this industry’s fascination with cool and the new, a point well made in a recent design manifesto Beyond the New. It appears we have cool designed stuff – sustainable, beautifully presented, extensively tweeted and blogged – whilst those ubiquitous objects we actually interact with, in the everyday, continue to participate in our extensive environmental f**kery.

Whilst the principles of change are clear the routes toward actually placing sustainability at the heart of the design process have one major blockage. This barrier is what enables the sale of disposable consumer electronics with prodigious, toxic life-cycles reminiscent of nuclear waste. It’s what enables fossil fuel companies to keep their heads in the tar sands, despite the guaranteed catastrophic warming inherent in its extraction, and has been setting humanity against itself for millennia. Greed is a mighty big problem. Design your way round that one.