In sustainability debates the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are often featured as a useful sustainable trinity.
However, in my books Aesthetic Sustainability and Anti-trend, I focus on reduction rather than reusing products or product waste and/or recycling. My focus on reducing is not meant as an attempt to underestimate the value or importance of the other two Rs, but no matter how good we are at recycling waste materials and using them for new products, it still requires large amounts of natural resources to do so. And, no matter how efficiently we reuse discarded objects by implementing take-back systems, it doesn’t eliminate the fact that there are simply too many unwanted things in the world.
Focusing on reusing and recycling can be dangerous because it tends to create the mentality that overproduction and overconsumption is justifiable, because there are systems to take care of our excess things when we no longer want or need them. But the existing systems cannot cope with the overload of goods being produced and discarded.
Consumption must be radically reduced in order for the current environmental crisis to be affected hereby in a positive manner. There really is no other way. When I write consumption, I mean it in the most straightforward sense of the word: buying too many things and going through and getting rid of them again way too quickly.
But what does radical reduction require from design-objects? From clothes and furniture and home accessories and toys and kitchenware? What does it take for us to get motivated to buy (a lot) less and repair (a lot) more? My theory is that design-objects must not only be wear-resistant and repairable, but also aesthetically nourishing and flexible in order to contain an inherent encouragement.
In Anti-trend I lay out my theory on what the anti-trendy design objects feels like, looks like, and “acts” like. Some of the characteristics are flexibility, alterability and repairability. But the anti-trendy design-object is also interlinked with more abstract attributes such as heaviness and rawness. Furthermore, the anti-trendy design-object is characterised by gently nudging the user toward sustainable living; whether that means inviting more textural stimulation into life by investing in hand-crafted artefacts that are anti-smooth or texturesque, engaging in nourishing daily rhythms that can provide life with a sense of direction and with the beauty of continuity and perseverance, or by allowing for more rawness, inconvenience, and heaviness in life in order to escape the despair and the dullness that follows detachment from nature and a life in a homogeneous physical—and cultural—environment.
In my new book Uncultivated, however, I am renewing the three Rs of sustainability entirely. Reducing consumption (and encouraging reduced consumption through design) is still essential in my research, but our times call for something more radical on top hereof. My new three sustainable Rs are:
Let’s start from the bottom by taking a look at the term Rewild (as it is the category I have worked mostly on so far, even though this one is still also a work in progress).
I have been in love with the term rewilding for quite some time. It is a love affair that started when I read the book Feral by George Monbiot, which revolves around Monbiot’s plea to allow for nature to develop wildly and uncontrolled (if not for the sake of nature’s nourishing, well-balanced diversity, then to save ourselves, as we are interconnected with nature and cannot sustain human livelihood without a stable, diverse natural environment).
Later on my rewilded fascination developed and was molded by my mind until it started feeling relevant to anything from cities to education, travelling, design development and human life. Rewilding is now a big inspiration to my research – and my life. I seek to rewild most things at the moment, especially myself.
In relation to product-design, rewilding is a celebration of letting go of control and allowing for natural processes to take place (a bit like when the wolves were reintroduced in the Yellowstone Park). In order to create rewilded design-objects, the designer must initiate or curate the aesthetic design experience, and then s/he must dare to step back, allowing for the object to develop in the hands of the user, and for the aesthetic experience to cultivate and alter as the user’s stories and interaction infuse it.
I have previously written about the oddity of finishing a design-object completely before releasing it into the world. If the object is made to be used, which I assume design-objects generally are, this doesn’t’ seem like the most logical approach. If something is completely done, with nothing to be added or taken away, the process of usage can only allow for deterioration moving toward a quickly approaching end. Perfectly finished garments with no flexibility and no unevenness, and tables or kitchen counters with smooth, glossy surfaces generally tend to get less appealing when used, and wear and tear leaves unflattering marks, stains, and wrinkles. Such design-objects are at their peak when released into the world, and the user-phase becomes one long regression toward final rejection. Consequently, such design-objects can be described as closed: closed off to usage and closed off to human attachment. Scratches and stains are not flattering additions to the finished or closed design-object.
I have investigated the open versus the closed design-object thoroughly in Anti-trend.
Why not rewild design-objects? – Why not design objects that flourish or grow better, more intriguing, and more beautiful throughout the user-phase, as the process of decay leaves its traces. Why not incorporate the process of usage into the design practice, and thus consider the user phase the phase of completion, or the phase in which the design-object obtains its true shape or identity? Could this lead to rewilded, aesthetically nourishing usage (rather than consumption)?
Similar to the release of the wolves in the Yellowstone Park, this way of approaching product development would require letting go of a degree of control. Of course, the designer has—and should have—intentions with the design-object created, and of course, s/he should charge it with aesthetically nourishing components and storytelling. But, as a part of rewilding the design-object the designer must dare to let the user phase take part in shaping the object and dare to allow for diversity to flourish. S/he must dare to release an open and slightly undeveloped design-object into the world; an object that is open to wear and tear, to usage, and accessible to all the diverse, multifaceted stories that it will be charged with while being a part of the user’s life. The aesthetics of the rewilded design-object are a tribute to rawness, wear and tear, and anti-homogeneity.
Let’s move on to the next R of sustainability in my new raw sustainable design-strategy: Reframe.
Reframing concerns rethinking and reevaluate the way we look at objects, at things; at all the beautiful, functional, and not so beautiful or functional objects we surround ourselves with.
We are used to considering the ressources around us a commodity for us to use to create things; most of them insignificant, some of them even singe-use, and a small percentage of them made for longlasting usage. We are used to consider nature’s ressources inexhaustible. But they are not. Of course they are not. No natural growth process can keep up with the speed at which we are cutting down trees and harvesting crops. We are running out of natural ressources, and are being forced to reframe our perspective. As Richard Powers writes in his magnificent novel The Overstory:
“What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
And yes, it really should. And most of the times it isn’t.
Einstein proved that nothing can be created or destroyed – only energy is moved around. If that is true (and I believe it is) then all the single-use and all the discarded products and the mountains of material waste that are currently being created are a huge problem. They dissolve energy and they block the flow of life.
How do we restore the flow of life? How do we reframe and alter the way we look at products, at consumption, at things, at ressources, and at our need for convenience?
Rebel is the third raw, sustainable R. And, like Reframe I am still very much in process with this one. But, I have the essence of this category lined out, and it goes like this:
The core of Rebel is of course the act of rebellion; against capitalism, against mindless consumerism and more-wants-more-attitudes, against insignificant products that get ugly and/or fall to pieces after just a short phase of usage, against each-to-their-own-mindsets and unwillingness to share (etc.). These “systems” are an offence to our natural ressources and to thoroughly made, aesthetically nourishing design-objects. Capitalism is rude, as environmental activist Vandana Shiva said in a podcast-interview I recently enjoyed; it makes us discard objects so very quickly. It makes us feel like we always need something else, better, newer, shinier, fancier, smoother.
A good dose of civil disobedience is needed alongside a celebration of the ancient wisdom that if something doesn’t feel right it likely isn’t right… Capitalism and consumerism are at their core guilty of so many of the problems we are facing worldwide: immense pollution, underpaid work, unethical work conditions, dying crafts traditions, bland homogenisation due to globalisation, poverty and unequal distribution of resources, monoculture with devastating ecological consequences, lack of proper work-life balance that causes despair, etc., etc. To borrow another line from Vandana Shiva: We need to learn how be citizens instead of consumers again.
My work on the raw, sustainable three Rs continues as does my exploration of the benefit of uncultivated behaviour… That is my small rebellion from my isolated table in a secluded village in the jungle of Bali.