Roundtable – what is sustainable?


14 January 2016

In a roundtable conversation organised by Studioilse, leading designers and critics discuss the problems and opportunities of sustainability.

The conversation was moderated by Disegno founder and editor-in-chief Johanna Agerman Ross and featured designers Kim Colin, Simon Hasan, Ilse Crawford and Nina Tolstrup, architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, and Vicky Richardson, director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council.

The roundtable took place at Studioilse's space in Southwark during the 2015 iteration of London Design Festival.

Disegno is delighted to publish an edited transcript of the discussion below.

The conversation was moderated by Disegno founder and editor-in-chief Johanna Agerman Ross and featured designers Kim Colin, Simon Hasan, Ilse Crawford and Nina Tolstrup, architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, and Vicky Richardson, director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council.

The roundtable took place at Studioilse's space in Southwark during the 2015 iteration of London Design Festival.

Disegno is delighted to publish an edited transcript of the discussion below.

What is sustainable? That is the theme of this conversation that Ilse has invited us to discuss today. The origin of this roundtable is a conversation that Ilse and I had on the train from Ikea in Älmhult to Copenhagen airport in which we spoke about the implications of designing a range of furniture for Ikea, which Ilse has done. Maybe that’s a good place to start?

Ilse Crawford It’s been very interesting doing the Sinnerlig range with Ikea, because when I talk about it to other people their reactions are really quite extreme from “How could you?!” to “Aren’t they monsters?”, “Don’t they use child labour?”, “Isn’t it wrecking the planet” to the “But surely Ikea’s over, it’s all about craft now.” So that fascinated me. Because you realise how, actually, there’s a relative lack of knowledge about how things, in practice, work.

And then, to flick over to another channel, I am head of design and well-being at Design Academy Eindhoven and obviously sustainability should be a part of any project. Students are often quite confused about it at the school. I had one student, who’s really bright, who started off the term thinking everything should be made locally, and completely changed his mind so that by the end he came up with a strategy where actually it was more about big companies working with both globally and locally sourced manufacturers. You could see that it’s one of those slippery topics that people find hard to define, let alone talk about.

In fact, I pulled out the definition of sustainability: “In ecology, sustainability is the capacity to endure. It is how biological systems remain diverse and productive indefinitely.” And then of course, in extension to that, you have sustainable design, which can also be called environmental design or environmentally sustainable design or environmentally conscious design, and the definition of that reads as: “Sustainable design is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment and services to comply with the principles of social, economic and ecological sustainability.”

So sustainable design is much vaster than sustainability by itself. It all of a sudden has to take in economic and/or social consciousness as well as ecological consciousness. I think that’s quite interesting that when it becomes applied to design it’s another beast altogether.

Kim Colin I was thinking that the first definition has time built into it. And I think sustainability in design doesn’t have time built in anymore. I think even though it’s talking about cultural systems, ecological systems, etcetera, the duration part has been taken out. At Industrial Facility we always found that really fascinating in talking to clients who want to be seen as being sustainable or doing sustainable design. They usually are talking about it from a manufacturing standpoint; that they want to be seen as using responsible materials in responsible ways. But our responsibility to designers, is that time part, that duration part. We’re not so wrapped up in the quick consumption and quick disposal of things; we want things to be good and to stick around for a long time. But in the process we’ve had to talk to manufacturers about how it is that that equation, which is usually purely about the raw material, can be more of a concept for the actual things they make.

I just want to tell one small story about working with a manufacturer because it was quite interesting. We tried to use PET – a recycled material, recycled water bottles essential – in a project we did and the cost analysis came back and said that using this recycled material is more expensive than injection-moulding would be. That was really shocking for us because it made sense that when you get to the end of the line and you’re buying sustainable products, they’re always at a higher price point. I always just thought that was a value equation that somebody put on it, but actually the process costs more.

So I was intrigued by the question that was asked in advance, which is, what do we need to teach others about sustainability? Partly it’s the producers of the raw materials that need to be taught as well. We had to go back to the raw producer and say you cannot price it like this if you actually want it to be taken up as a viable material, not just a cost proposition, but as a value proposition to your customers at the end of the line. I just wanted to throw those things on the table, that we’ve tried to go at it by talking both on the manufacturing end and talking to clients about the time that something lasts, and those things are both important.

How do you look at this Nina, because in your practice as a designer you employ a range of interesting materials and recycled materials, but it’s not necessarily for larger production.

Nina Tolstrup Yeah I mean in continuation of what Kim said, in a different way, I try to work in a sustainable way. But one example is a set of conference furniture that I made for Bloomberg’s head office in London. It was made out of wooden pallets as part of the Waste Not Wanted Project. So these things end up being more like statements. It was a big table and seven chairs and a floor all made of recycled pallets; sustainable or not, it’s a statement. The problem is that whether you like the design or not, you can make a similar set in a really nice hardwood for probably less or definitely less. It’s coming from a maker’s point of view, but again, recycling material costs and it’s a challenge because for pallets it’s obviously the rejected quality of wood from any leftover wood production all over the world. It’s funny because we get all sorts of wood, but it’s not a good quality wood to work with at all for making furniture. There is a lot of waste in it.

That’s just one example, and I think that in the big picture the systems are not geared for it. There’s a lot of good will from the companies and designers, but the way everything is put together just doesn’t work in a sustainable way. A third of the CO2 in the UK comes from the building industry. And so when developers go around they knock down buildings and make new buildings because, on paper, that is more profitable. That happens because there’s no straightforward economic cost on the environment or system for using existent buildings, whereas doing so could save a lot in terms of the bigger picture of COCO2. There’s no economic cost on the environment, so the calculations don’t add up.

In terms of financial aspect of the design industry, rather than the construction industry, in this particular project that you designed for Ikea Ilse, there is an interesting example where working with large-scale manufacturing actually led to a more sustainable, environmentally friendly approach and one that wasn’t more expensive.

I'm thinking particularly of the metal legs on these stools and benches that we are sitting on and the table we are sitting at, which Ikea was able to produce in a more environmentally friendly and cost-efficient way. But it took time.

Ilse That's the thing, it's about the system isn't it. In taking on this project we accepted the Ikea system. So we made sure that we understood how they made things, and we took time to understand the issues of price, dimensions, transportation, sustainable textiles and manufacturing and every single element that goes into the process from idea to home. And we worked out where we thought we could push them, technically speaking, and how we could make a difference. We could see that working with natural materials was a really interesting thing to go for. Working with plants, so to speak.

There is value there that hasn't been engaged with through design on a mass level. That was obviously interesting in terms of creating something that had emotional value, that would last, that would be in and of itself sustainable. But then it was clear that the great weakness in their product range right now is the emotional value, particularly the sensual values: the tactility, the warmth, the humanity of what they have. And expressing that through natural materials. 

That took us into the world of coatings, which we focused on obsessively for a long time. They do have strict environmental criteria, and they are huge on the human standards of production. To the extent, for example, that when the cork was being manufactured in Porto and someone on the shop floor decided to change the glue without telling anybody, they picked it up in testing and closed down production for two weeks until they could get to the bottom of what the issue was and rectify it. It wasn't even that the new glue didn't meet EU regulations, it just didn't meet their regulations.

Unless you can make sustainability desirable, you don't stand a chance. You can't make people buy something because it's good: it won't last and it won't reach that bigger audience.

Vicky do you want to add something to the conversation at this point?

Vicky Richardson Yes, to go back to the question in the beginning, I feel that it is time for a new framework for discussing design. A new ideology, if you like. I think that sustainability doesn't describe very well some of the things that we are trying to talk about. I entirely agree with the goal of having an endurable, long-lasting, tactile product. Lack of waste, efficiency, all of those things. But that is not unique to this period in terms of this moment in history: what we call sustainable design. There's plenty of examples from the past that have generated that kind of approach to design. I think what is specific to sustainability, from a designer's point of view, is that it is incredibly utilitarian and technical.

What it needs is a more humanistic approach, or an approach that might lend itself more to humanities. Architecture, for example, has always been connected to humanities in terms of being a cornerstone of the arts. Sustainability takes design down a technical route, which I think separates it from humanism, where it also becomes a philosophy, if you like. It is highly moralistic in its own tone. It preaches, it talks about teaching lessons about taking responsibility, about making responsible decisions as consumers. It's a very individual philosophy, which I think is often based on bad science. For one thing, it can be fairly irrational and often relies on not wanting to know reality.

As you said Nina, 30 per cent of carbon emissions come from construction – who would really know that? For most people, the fact that it's about separating more rubbish and making an ethical choice when you buy clothes, it comes down to these individual decisions, which I think is very bad because it actually muddies the water. It doesn't clarify what the real situation is. It doesn't allow us to really solve the problems, which I think have to be solved at scale in terms of global cooperation, in terms of policies that need to be addressed in industry and addressed at production at a big scale. 

The philosophy of sustainability is entirely backwards, in my view. It is actually anti-development and it's a product of the time we live in, which is a time of economic stagnation. It originates in the 1970s in the economic crash and it's a way of embracing economic stagnation and turning it into a virtue, rather than really addressing the fact that as a society we need to move forward, we need to produce more, we need to solve more problems, we need more development not less. 

Simon Hassan Sorry, but I don't think I necessarily agree with your point about turning to technology to solve some of these problems. The risk of that is de-humanising or detaching whatever it is that we are designing from humanity. I think that's where the designer comes into their own because the designer should have a foot in both worlds and should be able to negotiate both of these worlds and work in a transdisciplinary nature. Yet they need to preserve sensitivity to human need, while also being able to embrace technological advancements and use them and distill them.

The point about vertical integration of production from manufactured material, maybe that’s where big brands can help because that's where they can help you access those sort of technical advancements which, as an individual designer, it’s much more difficult to have access to.

Ilse It's sometimes funny talking to the young students coming in because you can see that for them things like beauty and comfort are almost dirty words.

Simon Well students are fascinated by how things are made. They don't want to design objects anymore, they want to design machines. Everyone is asking if there is a machine for something. It's like avoiding the dirty issue, which is things. It's very strange. But I think that it is also about trying to get more of an understanding of how things are made and trying to scrape away these shiny plastic veneers or software development or software engineering. Trying to get to the essence of stuff which is material.

Ilse That it’s not just about the aesthetic. The other reason that we were interested in this project for Ikea was the idea that you could actually make furniture that were background pieces and weren't always shouting. Somehow not only is everything having to be new, everything is having to be “look at me”. Why can't you have things that are almost invisible. It's not just the supernormal approach. It's trying to change the perspective on things, so that you engage with them rather than having them be a kind of visual assault. 

Simon But the dangerous thing about Ikea is that they've really distorted the pricing structure of the market. They have influenced people's opinions of material and how much it costs. It is cheaper to buy stuff from Ikea than it is to build it yourself or to make it yourself using pine from your local hardware store. So people have this benchmark of what good value is. As a small designer and producer, when you try and make things that are financially accessible to people, you look very expensive very quickly. So to have traction and have a voice in that market, you have to go to cheaper manufacturing solutions, which tend not to be very sustainable. It is an incredibly complex thing. 
But I think it's impossible to ignore what Vicky said: big business is what sets the tone and agenda for how we interact with the world. When a company such as Ikea decides to go sustainable or more environmentally friendly, then that has a very big impact on the things that we consume. But simultaneously there is a very big lack of trust in big corporations at the moment.

Just before the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, the public relations agency, Edelman, released its 15th annual trust barometer. It said that trust in big corporate businesses has declined by two thirds in 27 of the markets that they investigated, including Canada, Australia, Germany and Singapore. So there is a very big lack of faith in corporations, obviously since the financial difficulties of the last eight years, but also because of the fact that we see that they invest in things that we don't believe in and that we don't think they should be investing in.

Ilse Not to mention the African mines that fill your phones.

Of course. Vicky said that if we all recycle, that will distract us for a brief moment, but the real problem is on a much larger scale at a much higher level, which makes us feel unable to make a difference as individuals.

Edwin Heathcote Sustainability has been around long enough now to have now been subsumed by the corporations as a marketing tool. How sustainable a product is has become a way of selling the product. When that happens, you need to re-frame the question. I was chairing a talk yesterday at the V&A with Daniel Charney and some others, and he said that he thought that sustainability is a word that was dead and should be replaced by resilience. He talked about the circuit economy and repair. Sustainability has been subverted as a kind of corporate mantra now. It is very difficult to talk about it because in many ways it has become meaningless.

Ilse Yes. The companies who are sustainable you don't know about, because they're too embarrassed to use that term. And the ones who use it are probably the ones who aren't very sustainable at all. It's very confusing. 

Edwin I used to have this small ironmongery company and we cast metal knobs: brass knobs and bronze knobs. People would say to me, "How sustainable is that?" and I would have to say that it wasn't sustainable at all. It is hugely energy consuming, but those things last for 500 years. So does that make it more sustainable than something like Ikea which is marketed as being sustainable, but will fall apart in two years? So it is almost impossible to talk about sustainability because the terms are so loosely defined. 

Kim That is the point that I want to make as well. I think that consumers have a very cloudy idea about what that word means and it's appearing all over the place and it means all these different things. But somehow, in the marketing departments in these big corporations, it has been equated as the thing that will make people pay a bit more for something. It's that one word and we're completely suckered by it.