The Butterfly

This post consists of a short extract from my new book Anti-trend. It is taken from Chapter 5: Three Anti-trendy Reasons for Designing New Objects in a World With Way too Many Things – and is interlinked with the conversation Liina Klauss and I had at our combined film premiere and book launch last Friday at The Bridge Green School.

I hope you will enjoy!


The butterfly

As initiated in the beginning of this subsection, designing for longevity and a long product life might not be the only way to create sustainable things. Designing objects with a short lifespan could be an alternative sustainable design approach that would enable and encourage people to live sustainably, and to enable people to do so in a more playful or light-hearted manner.

Long-lived objects are dependent on consumers being willing to invest in quality, thoroughness, innovative solutions, and in handmade crafts. Creating long-lived objects is time consuming, and the price tag should reflect that. However, investing in durability is not possible for everyone, and being able to afford doing so or being well-informed or well-educated enough and consequently in a position to make qualified choices and to prioritize sustainability tends to increase inequality and discrimination in a society. Because, the superior feeling of consuming and living sustainably tends to go hand in hand with a condescending division between “them”—the ones who shop carelessly, or the ones who don’t know any better and ignorantly pollute our environment—and “us”: the ones who are well-informed and who prioritize sustainability; who don’t compromise when it comes to ideals or image; who would not buy single-use plastic bottles or use plastic straws; who would not purchase fast-fashion clothes; who buy carbon offsets when flying; who drive electric vehicles; who don’t buy plastic toys for their kids; who only invest in beautifully crafted furniture; who holiday only in ecological resorts, etc. All of these are expensive ways of living sustainably.

In other words, sustainable consumption and living has unfortunately become yet another elitist way of increasing the already gaping gap between the rich and the poor, between cultivated and uninformed, between educated and unsophisticated, between enlightened and ignorant, between the politically correct and the “inconsiderate.” Mending that gap might be one of the most important tasks for the sustainable designer, and a way of doing that might be the creation of sustainable, short-lived, affordable design-objects.

Designing single-use items or products that adhere to fleeting trends out of materials that last for a long time is actually kind of bizarre. Despite this being common practice, it is a flaw. How can designing single-use straws and bags out of plastic and short-lived flip flops out of imperishable foam rubber have become custom? Why is creating trend-based stuff that is intentionally made to be fleeting out of resource-demanding natural materials like cotton, wool, hardwood, or out of synthetic materials that cannot deteriorate naturally—like polyester, nylon, rayon, or polyethylene—be considered business as usual? If you think about this in a logical manner, designing something for short-term usage out of materials that can last for hundreds of years is erroneous and should be considered a design error.

So, should designing single-use products meant for short-term usage be banned? Well, yes that would be one way to eradicate this problematic situation. But since that is neither realistic nor necessary let’s look at another way of getting around the problem of trash and discarded things building up in oceans and landfills due to trend-based planned and perceived obsolescence.

This morning my youngest son found a big, blue dead butterfly lying on our bedroom floor. He was delighted: the butterfly’s short life ending right there in our bedroom felt magical and beautiful. Now it is afternoon, and ants have already started to ingest it, and in a couple of days it will be gone completely. The other morning the large cocoon on the wall of our bathroom was empty; the butterfly had left it and had flown away. This is the natural cycle of life. Florae and faunae alternate or deteriorate, two terms and tactics that are the inspiration for the sustainable design strategy that can lead to the creation of resilient, anti-trendy design-objects.

In order for a sustainable design-object to be long lived it must be alterable (flexible, adjustable, upgradeable, repairable, or aesthetically decayable), and in order for a sustainable design-object to be short-lived, it must be able to naturally deteriorate.

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