In these crazy and turbulent corona times, it is finally time for some news from my isolated jungle house. I have chosen to share an small extract from my upcoming book Anti-trend – resilient design and the art of sustainable living that I am currently in the process of editing. The themes seem more relevant than ever. Once the corona nightmare is over it is important that we don’t just return to the consumption-patterns that we have momentarily paused, and focus on getting the “wheels of consumption” to spin faster and faster once again. Let’s instead explore a new normal and incorporate new ways of consuming goods. And furthermore, let’s remember the community-spirit and willingness to alter habits and old ways of doing things that many experience right now.
This section is taken from the second last chapter in the book, called Three anti-trendy reasons for designing new objects in a world with (way) too many things. It is a part of the third reason for designing new objects, namely Encouraging sustainable living.
Instead of trying to convince consumers to buy less and focus on investing in better objects, maybe encouraging sustainable behaviour by nudging them into wanting to do so and to share and repair their things would be a better and more effectual and durable approach. Because, despite tangible facts on pollution and global warming and the link between these devastating scenarios and overconsumption, consumers don’t really seem to act or change their behaviour; or at least, not enough do, and not on a large enough scale.
There is still a large demand for cheaply produced goods, and the manufacturing industry still seeks to meet that demand by producing more stuff quicker and cheaper. The fast fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined, more than 15 tons of textile waste is generated each year in the United States alone, and the number has doubled over the last twenty years (confirming the fact that increased pollution and global warming doesn’t scare consumers away from shopping cheap clothes), polyester clothing takes nearly 200 years to decompose (nylon is not much better) and it furthermore releases microplastic into the environment, and, it takes approximately 2700 litres of water to make a cotton t-shirt (which becomes an even scarier scenario when understanding that worldwide one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water).
In other words, the environmental impact of mass-produced clothes is huge, well almost immeasurable. And, obviously, the production of low-priced toys, kitchenware, interior accessories etc. is equally pollutant.
So, if alarming facts about pollution caused by fast fashion are not encouraging enough to alter clothes consumption habits (as well as the habits related to the consumption of other lifestyle products for that matter), perhaps the sustainable product designer’s main task is to seek new approaches to encourage sustainable behaviour. But, how do you make people want to change their ways, rather than inform or maybe scare them into doing so (which doesn’t seem to work)?
In general consumption needs to be reduced massively, and hence investing in long-lasting things, or perhaps sharing or swapping things rather than using and throwing them away, should ideally be the norm. However, what does the prospect of being a long-term investment require from design-objects? And – can any object be a sharing-object? The short answer to the latter question is: no, I don’t think so. And in this subsection, I intent to clarify why I don’t, and what it requires from an object to be swapped or shared and repaired.
Simply put, the main motive for overconsumption is the sensation that what one already owns is somehow obsolete. Maybe it is no longer functioning, and repair seems impossible (perhaps due to the design, or perhaps due to lack of access to the utensils needed), maybe it is weathered and worn out (and mending seems meaningless, because buying something new is much easier and even also often much cheaper), or perhaps it still works fine, in the sense that it is still usable or wearable, but it somehow feels wrong; it is perceived as obsolete. Now, I have previously discussed the concept of perceived obsolescence. The vast majority of the belongings of a 21st century person in a developed country are discarded due hereto, and hence not because they don’t work anymore and not because they are worn out, but because they are perceived as obsolete.
So, if perceived obsolescence is one of the big sinners when it comes to the endless landfills filled with unwanted stuff, what does it take to eliminate this mechanism? What are the characteristics of objects; clothes, furniture, interior accessories etc. that can continuously satisfy our need for newness? And, maybe even also other’s need for newness and hence be sharable or swapable. Or, are we looking at this up-side down? Should the question rather be: how can the constant need for newness be eliminated?
The cornerstone in relation to long-term investments and sharing economy that can jeopardise the use-and-throw-away ethos is a perspectival change. Rather than endless growth the focus needs to shift to human – and ecological – wellbeing. Rather than convenience and lightness we should be focusing on rawness and heaviness (in the nourishing sense of the term that I previously discussed). Inviting more heaviness into our lives involves taking responsibility. For actions as well as purchases. And taking responsibility for one’s purchases involves mending the things we invest in as well as passing them on to others, when we no longer need them — or maybe it even means sharing them with others.
Collaborative consumption could be a way of satisfying the need for newness that underpins perceived obsolescence. Collaborative consumption means owning things together with others, and it involves the opportunity of exchanging one’s “belongings” after a period of usage. Examples hereof are clothes libraries or sharing-wardrobes, which are phenomena that seems to be popping up in the majority of large cities lately, signifying that there is a growing desire to engage in sharing things and building communities. A clothes library typically works in the way that one, after subscribing and paying a monthly subscription-fee, can borrow a set number of items. This makes it possible to change one’s wardrobe often, without over-consuming — well, even without consuming at all. And furthermore, it makes it “legitimate” to “go through” clothes, and thus to not necessarily feel obliged to view every acquisition as an investment, because no purchase is actually being made.
But, if there are so many obvious benefits of not owning one’s clothes, but rather borrowing them for a while, then why is this not the new normal? Why is it only a very small crowd of sustainable first movers and immaterialists, who adhere to this concept? The answer is likely interlinked with the previous notion on societal status symbols and consumer habits; consuming in the sense of going through goods and hence buying and displaying brand-new things and discarding them when they no longer appear trendy or UpToDate is still vastly viewed as a sign of welfare. And furthermore, wearing second-hand clothes still to an extend connotes “not being able to afford new garments”, and the stale scent of “castoff” still seems to linger hereto.
Sharing one’s wardrobe with a kinfolk of likeminded, who have similar aesthetic preferences, and thereby collaboratively consume garments (if consuming is even the right term in relation hereto) makes extremely good sense, as it is both cheaper and more sustainable than owning clothes, and furthermore it contains the surplus benefit of creating a community-feeling and of satisfying one’s need to continuously look new and chic. And yet, we are so stuck in the consensus that one has to own clothes (as well as furniture, bicycles, interior products, books etc. etc.) instead of sharing that engaging in collaborative consumption is viewed as unusual and unorthodox.
Let us for a short while imagine a world, in which collaborative consumption is the norm. A world in which sharing clothes is normal, a world, in which owning very little stuff is status-providing, a world, in which purchasing something new involves responsibilities (to ensure that it is used well and passed on to others, when one is done with using it) rather than rights (to do whatever one wants with one’s belongings, and to throw them away when bored with them); a world, in which immaterialism rather than materialism governs consumption. In this world a range of new objects are needed. Objects that are sharable and collaboratively consumable, objects that can endure the extensive usage, that can be mended and updated, and that can circulate amongst and satisfy a group of owners due to flexibility and aesthetics.
In other words, not all objects can be collaboratively consumed or shared. It requires certain object-qualities to be resilient enough to be co-owned. But, what exactly does it require? Adaptability? Subtleness? Does a sharable object need to have a modular structure, so that single elements can be replaced if they no longer work, or if they get worn out? It most certainly requires a degree of hardiness, because when an object is used by many rather than one, it obviously wears more rapidly. And hence, there are requirements in relation to the materials used when creating sharable objects. However, robustness can also take the shape of wearability and fit, if talking about garments. Or of flexibility and size-adjustment, if talking about furniture. Or of subtle aesthetics that ensure mixability with other items. All of which are qualities that ensure longevity.
The strange thing, however, is that sometimes objects that possess none of the above-mentioned qualities are long-lived and are passed on through generations. Like the petroleum blue second-hand sofa, I bought at a vintage furniture-store in Copenhagen. It was visually loud (due to its blue colour and very distinct 50’s design shape; square, light and flared armrests), it was non-flexible, hard to clean, and the wooden legs would often have to be re-fastened, due to their wobbly composition. And yet, the sofa was snatched as soon as I finished the “for sale” listing, before us moving to Bali (and a few of my friends had even on several occasions said that if I wanted to sell that sofa, they were interested!).
At times the most long-lived objects that manage to survive stylistic shifts and tend to get more valuable when traces of usage mould them, are not the ones that are subtle and minimalistic, but rather the ones that that are “self-confident” in their expression in the sense that they are visually loud, bold, time-typical statement pieces.
However, investing in vintage furniture and passing belongings down through generations is essentially different than collaborative consumption and sharable objects, as the latter, rather than solely being linked up on permanency, is intertwined with a mindset on whether or not owning the things we surround ourselves with, use and wear is necessary. Vintage furniture could be sharable, as it by definition has the ability to continuously please and nourish its receiver and hence defies the need for newness that tends to lead to over-consumption. Yet, whilst investing in vintage objects and selling them on might be a way of minimising the consumption of new things, it is not the same as challenging the very core of consumption; namely the need to purchase and own stuff.