Designing new objects in a world with way too many things

My new book Anti-trend will be published very soon (and can already now be pre-ordered). I am so excited to start the new year with this book publication and am looking forward to finally sharing all of my anti-trend theories with you.

In this and the following posts I will share short extracts from the book to give you a foretaste of the themes and discussions.

This post consists of paragraphs on the sustainable value of sharing objects from Chapter 5: Three Anti-trendy Reasons for Designing New Objects in a World with Way too Many Things This chapter is split up into the following main sections:

  1. Waste Materials, Deconstruction, and Upcycling
  2. Sustaining and Empowerment
  3. Encouraging Sustainable Living

The following is taken from section on encouraging sustainable living.

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Encouraging Sustainable Living

(…)

With this in mind, the third and last legitimation for designing new things in a world overflowing with discarded objects is to encourage sustainable, resilient living—and to demonstrate that it is possible to turn around the current state of affairs. To provide consumers with sustainable options and solutions; solutions that are available to all—not just to the fortunate few or to the elite—and solutions that inspire us to consume less, share more, and pursue a more fulfilling, resilient lifestyle. I state the latter because over-consumption and greediness in my perspective often occur out of dissatisfaction and the unfortunate “logic” that prosperity equals financial growth and a constant increase in material properties. Overconsumption and a buy-and-throw-away mentality is at the one end of the scale of the aforementioned golden mean, whereas nihilistic refusal and turning away from society altogether is at the other end. We need to find a balance. We need to seek durable permanence. We need objects that can satisfy our inherent need for beauty and aesthetic nourishment—in a sustainable manner.

I will be investigating the following three ways to encourage sustainable, resilient living based on product or concept design in this section: 1. collaborative consumption: swapping, sharing, and repairing; 2. long-lived and short-lived products; and 3. the open, raw design-object. These three approaches to sustainable design have the overall purpose of making it possible, attractive, accessible, and affordable for the common consumer to live as sustainably as possible. Furthermore, their objective is to encourage sustainable living by generating the empowering feeling of not being too small or insignificant to make a difference, no matter how vast the environmental problems might seem—as well as highlighting the beauty and the fulfilling feeling of wanting to make that difference.

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Collaborative Consumption: Swapping, Sharing, and Repairing

Instead of trying to convince consumers to buy less and focus on investing in better objects, maybe encouraging sustainable behavior 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 the evidence of pollution and global warming and the link between these devastating scenarios and overconsumption, consumers don’t really seem to act or change their behavior; 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 20 years, only confirming that increased pollution and global warming doesn’t scare consumers away from shopping for cheap clothes. Polyester clothing takes nearly 200 years to decompose and nylon is not much better, while they continue to release microplastic into the environment. It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to make a cotton t-shirt, which becomes an even scarier scenario when understanding that globally, more than one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water.

In other words, the environmental impact of mass-produced clothes is huge—almost immeasurable. The production of low-priced toys, kitchenware, interior accessories, etc., is equally pollutant to add to that.
So, if alarming facts about pollution caused by fast fashion are not encouraging enough to alter consumption habits, perhaps the sustainable product designer’s main task is to seek new approaches to encourage sustainable behavior. But, how do you make people want to change their ways, rather than inform or scare them into doing so?

In general, consumption needs to be reduced massively. 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 shared object? The short answer to the latter question is: No, I don’t think so. And in this subsection, I intend 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 to lack of access to the tools and/or skills needed—maybe it is weathered and worn out, or perhaps it still works fine, but it somehow feels wrong and is perceived as obsolete. A majority of the belongings of a 21st-century person are discarded due to perceived obsolescence, not because the products don’t work anymore or are worn out. So, if perceived obsolescence is one of the big sinners when it comes to the 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? A newness that opens the door to the idea of sharable or swappable goods. Or are we looking at this wrong? Should the question rather be: How can the constant need for newness be eliminated?

(…)

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. 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. 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. These are qualities that ensure longevity.

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