3 Sustainability Lessons from Forward-Thinkers in Design

Forward-thinking isn’t just a necessary ingredient in creating positive change, it’s also the name of a powerful meet up hosted by DOGA, Design and Architecture Norway every year that brings designers, industry leaders and sustainability visionaries together for a day of inspiration, forward talking and dialogue around increasing the role of sustainability in design, strategy and customer experiences. According to DOGA, “design helps set the direction in a holistic perspective leading to better products, services, systems and business models.”

Here are some of the key lessons extracted this year’s Forward Thinking (aka Framtanker) conference:

1. Be disruptive 

According to Gunter Pauli, a serial entrepreneur, author and initiator of The Blue Economy, it’s high time we step away from the prevalent global economic model that demands we continue the detrimental cycle of producing more of the same at a cheaper and cheaper price. If we really want to make change for the better—  socially, environmentally, and economically — we can not continue doing the same thing.  And, one thing Gunter made firmly clear is this: simply doing less bad is NOT good enough.

“We’re giving awards to companies that pollute less. If you’re a child and you steal less you are still a thief… and this is the unfortunate thing in the environment and sustainability and social affairs. We are not disruptive enough. We have to be disruptive and we have to be surprising. We have to surprise, but surprise while being positive.”

Cementing his point, Gunter provided example after example of surprising and disruptive innovations that are creating a positive impact not only through their function but in the powerful example they provide of the kind of change which is truly possible.

Examples like the Race for Water Odyssey boat that runs entirely on seawater and solar power; LiFi , the WiFi alternative that produces 0% health harming radio waves, 80% more energy savings for better planet, and a x200 speed for higher efficiency; the company Singtex, which is creating fabrics from coffee grounds; the use of the common herbaceous thistle plant for bioplastics, mulching material, and a roundup substitute; and the use of algae to create fibers, zero emissions energy, textiles, fertilizer, and more.

Watch Gunter’s pep talk with more inspiring examples of positive disruption here: 

 

2. Make it circular

When Jens Petter Ring, Kjersti Kviseth, and the World Cup alpine skier Aksel Lund Svindal got together last year to discuss ideas for their new clothing brand Greater than A , they all agreed on one thing: it should be great looking, functional, and uncompromisingly sustainable.

Greater than A is founded upon the mission to prove that great looking and high functional clothing can be made with zero harm to the planet. Rather than the linear, take-make-dump approach, they are basing their design decisions on a circular model. As Kjersti Kviseth, a Life Cycle Design expert, puts it: “We prefer t-shirt to t-shirt thinking.”

Having a mono material strategy is a major component of achieving circularity. This means using materials that are fit for composting or recycling into a new product at the end of a given lifecycle. For Greater than A, this means, for example,  avoiding microfibers and fossil-based materials in favor of organic cotton, TENCEL, wool, and bio-based technical materials.

However, designing circular isn’t as simple as choosing cotton or wool. One must consider every single detail in the material stream and ensure it is clean—from the dyes to the composition of the thread that holds the garment together.

“A cotton or wool t-shirt may biodegrade in your garden in like 12 weeks or something, but what we do is we compost things that are totally toxic and full of chemicals. So in order to really go for a compostable or biodegradable line it has to be squeaky clean. And that’s a huge challenge. Because shit in is, actually, shit out.”

For example, nearly all the clothing we wear on a daily basis is sewn with synthetic and non-biodegradable polyester thread. According to Kjersti, if you were to bury a cotton or wool shirt in the compost pile then dig it up one year later, everything would be decayed except for the polyester thread.  As a solution to this particular example, Greater than A has spent months tracking down a biodegradable TENCEL-based thread to sew their garments with.

Set to launch in January 2018, Greater than A and it’s co-founders hope their high standards for sustainable design will do even more than provide customers with a stylish and environmentally friendly alternative to high functional outdoor clothing. They are set on disrupting the entire industry, and moving it forward.

Watch Jens Petter Ring and Kjersti Kviseth tell the story of Greater than A here:

 

3. Source Responsibly 

As the Traceability Manger for Patagonia, it’s Nicholas Allen’s job to dig deep into the supply chain and ensure that each of their suppliers uphold Patagonia’s high standards, in alignment with the company’s mission to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Patagonia’s approach to responsible sourcing is four fold: Business, Quality, Social Responsibility, and Environmental Responsibility. And they have four corresponding teams that come together regularly to evaluate and monitor both new and existing suppliers. But even with a thorough process in place, ensuring the chain of custody is clear and clean from farm to factory is no simple task.  It requires time, research, assessment, and constantly asking the question: How can we reduce impact? 

According to Nicholas, some of the greatest impact reducers can be found in the material itself.

“Where raw materials are grown—either natural fibers or animal fibers, synthetics or recycled materials—the origin of the fiber is really where you’ll find the biggest impacts.”

For example, when the team reassessed their Nano Puff jacket they found that, although it had a recycled polyester shell, the insulation was made from 100% virgin polyester. So they looked into substitutions. Today the jacket contains 50% recycled polyester (not perfect, but an improvement). Through this change they are able to divert an estimated 200 million plastic PET bottles from the landfill, instead recycling them into the production of the product.

Another example  comes from Patagonia’s wetsuit range which used to be made from a petroleum-based product called neoprene. By focusing on the material the team decided that the biggest impact would come from shifting over to a natural rubber-based material sourced from a FSC certified forest. By doing so they have eliminated about 80% of the CO2 emissions once related to the product.

Patagonia also seeks to reduce impact when it comes to animal welfare. A powerful example comes from a traumatic experience in 2015 when they found out through a PETA investigation that one of their “sustainable” wool suppliers was skinning sheep alive. Patagonia ceased working with that supplier and reevaluated their wool supply chain entirely. Dissatisfied with current sustainability and welfare standards which they thought were moving too slow they ended up creating their own wool standard. The Patagonia Wool Standard establishes clear sourcing requirements that ensure the welfare of all animals involved, improve and maintain healthy land ecosystems, and ensure the traceability of wool from farm to final product.

Watch Nicholas Allen talk more on responsible sourcing here: 

 


The sustainability lessons in this article come from talks given at the 2017 Framtanker conference in Oslo, Norway. If you would like to watch more talks by forward-thinkers in design and sustainability click here for the YouTube playlist. 

 

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