When confronted with a creative strategy like 'design to reduce the need to consume', you would be forgiven for assuming that this is a contradictory notion. After all, design is surely about the creation of more stuff - cooler, and slightly more on-trend versions of their discarded predecessors. Whether this cooler 'stuff' is materials, products, garments or accessories, we as an industry are collectively in the business of producing more.
There are of course some exceptions to this rule, and I will be discussing some of them in this, and forthcoming posts. In these texts, I will be primarily exploring how designers can reduce the need to consume by making stuff that lasts; things that withstand the test of time, with durable meanings and values, that people want to keep and look after? And, I will be talking about emotionally durable design, and its massive potential as a strategic approach to reducing the consumption and waste of resources and energy. Along the way, I will be speaking with Yoshiaki Yoshimura (Creative Directing Manager of lifestyle footwear at Puma), to discuss ideas such as these, and more. According to Yoshiaki, some of the main obstacles to engaging with sustainability through the design of goods are: durability of product, availability of innovation-enabling technology, cost and time.
As a footwear designer with over 10-years professional experience he told me, “shoes are consumer goods that are consumed by customers. To some extent, they are going to be worn out at some point [creating waste], and so designing things that last longer, and things that get better with time is essentially a great idea. It is also an important direction for design, because it basically talks about creating value that lasts”.
A number of academics (mostly) call a move away from the production of things, towards a less materialistic and ecologically burgeoning form of consumption in which experiences are the focus of our desire. In these scenarios we consume experiences rather than objects and sensations rather than stuff. The things we own become mere ‘vehicles’ or ‘carriers’ of meaning. Take denim jeans for example; you have a close relationship with your jeans. Your jeans are like a second skin, worn and molded and torn by your everyday experiences. Purchased like blank canvases, jeans are worked on, sculpted and personified over time. Jeans are like familiar old friends providing animated narrative to life – a repository of memories – mapping events as and when they occur.
Figure 1: Denims develop character with age
When textiles and apparel are designed and produced to adapt and improve with age, people keep and look after them for longer. Importantly, this extended product lifespan does not always come at an extended cost. Rather, it is enabled through approaching the design of ‘things’ in a particular way; by appreciating that the point of sale is just the beginning of the product story, and not the end. Grenson – a British shoemaker founded in 1866 – produce high quality handmade shoes that improve with age and have enduring styles. Over time, a pair of Grensons will soften, and sculpt to fit your feet; they ‘become’ yours.
Figure 2: Grenson shoes are designed to be maintained, used and loved
Much of this is due to the use of materials. But, there are downsides to leather. Despite its ageing qualities, leather does place a heavy burden on the environment. The average synthetic running shoe produces 8Kg CO2. Primarily, this CO2 is the result of materials processing, manufacturing, transportation and packaging. The average leather shoe produces 15Kg CO2– over twice as much. Yoshiaki expressed concerns over the future of leather, saying that “there is less and less leather used on footwear; its becoming more expensive, and there’s less of it. If you use really nice quality leather on a shoe though, it will age well and it will be tough – but it will cost more.”
In addition to the high carbon intensity of cattle farming, the process of ‘growing’ leather creates a great deal of methane, or CH4 as it is scientifically known. As a greenhouse gas and main contributor to climate change, CH4 is 25 times more potent per kilo than CO2. And so there is a dichotomy here, as Yoshiaki of Puma pointed out: “synthetic materials are at times more sustainable than natural ones, as they can be kept within material flows on a cradle to cradle methodology.” Sure, leather can be used in a way, which extends product life, and in so doing, reduces levels of consumption and waste. While on the other hand, leather has a heavy ecological burden – both in terms of methane production (as discussed), but also in terms of the toxic compounds used in the processing and coloring of cowhide.
But, as Yoshiaki says, “using better materials, and better quality of production will affect the longevity of a shoe, but it will also affect price, but if this extra cost is understood by the customer, then they are more likely to buy into it”.
Indeed, the social values affixed to the ageing of material surfaces are complex. Take leather for example. A scuff or scratch on a pair of patent leather stilettos ruins them, whereas handmade leather brogues develop character, and improve with such wear and tear. Indeed, patina is an important design consideration to assist the extension of product lifespans in graceful and socially acceptable ways. Sometimes it is acceptable for a given material to develop patina, and sometimes its not. For example, cars should not be dinted and scratched, unless they’re vintage cars and then its considered charming.
Design must challenge our social desire for a scratch-free, box-fresh world. The onset of ageing can concentrate, rather than weaken, the experience of an object. On an industrial scale, “these ideas are very much on the horizon”, says Yoshiaki though there is still some way to go. Emma Whiting’s concept for Puma explores the idea of an ‘evolving narrative experience’; a shoe which celebrates the process of ageing, and the accumulation of grime and wear and tear.
Figure 3-6: Evolving narrative experience by Emma Whiting, 2012
Seb Oddi’s Stain Tablecloth works to a similar agenda. After all, should we really be bleaching and boiling our whites as a means to maintain pristine, brilliant white, anemic homes? His tablecloth reveals a pattern through the inevitable accidents that happen through everyday use, exploring transferable ideas about how use and wear can enhance the product, capture and embed stories and a history that elongates the life of the product and its relationship with the user.
Figure 7: Stain tablecloth by Seb Oddi, 2006
This might be due to the fashion systems long-established preoccupation with the serial release of season after season of near identical goods. The primary purpose of these products is to maintain ‘on-trend’ status; providing swarms of brand-loyal customers with a steady stream of fresh, new things to buy.
A lot of people outside of design are very quick to ask: “why do you keep bringing out new things?” But, as Yoshiaki says, “its part of the job to keep bringing out more things; we are constantly exploring new ways of matching the needs of the market, while also leading in defining what the future of footwear should be. We both follow trend, and define it. We have to keep on moving to stay alive in the ‘game’; we are always learning. Even in becoming more sustainable, this is a journey that is punctuated by a series of products – each one better than the last – a movement toward sustainability.” Puma’s Creative Director, Hussein Chalayan, speaks of our “too-rushed world” and makes statements through his work about “the speed of our lives”. Chalayan recently spoke at the London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, expressing his concern over the ever-increasing pace of the fashion system, and the huge demands this places on designers.
No designer ever knowingly set out to make the world a worse place. No designer ever jumped out of bed one Monday morning saying, "Hey, I'm going to design a really unsustainable, meaningless product today!" The desire to produce lasting value and meaning in the world, through the things we create, is in the very DNA of all creative minds. In this way, it is clear that the shift toward designing longer lasting products is something that most designers are already behind. On a corporate level, the desire is also evident, as customer satisfaction and consequent loyalty are tied in to such issues.
As a lead designer at Puma (the worlds biggest sports lifestyle brand), I asked Yoshiaki whether ideas like this are idealist academic dreams, or do they have commercial possibility, and potential? He replied, “I like to believe in this kind of opportunity as a designer as it is showing more consciousness for the way people keep and own things. People love things that adapt and grow to fit the body, becoming more comfortable, and personal to them. These are important ideas, for sure. Through these ideas, we can create objects that are sold at a set price, but which become priceless, through use. It is definitely a viable possibility for industry to look at this, and personally as a designer, I think this is definitely an important approach to design”.