The Consolations of Green Design
Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny’s honeycomb vases are manufactured by bees inside a hive over the course of a week. (Source)

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I recently found myself browsing a Financial Times feature about “great tech for greener living,” a selection of stylish items for the principled customer. They included an oak iPhone stand sustainably crafted by Polish artisans (holding your phone “at a perfect 25-degree tilt”); wireless earphones with a wood inlay by House of Marley, the eco-friendly studio founded by Bob Marley’s son Rohan; and an app, Ethy, that audits brands for their environmental credentials.

This is a good snapshot of the environmental consciousness that has emerged among upmarket consumers. They still want fashionable, functional and beautiful products, but these qualities are no longer enough. The casual pillaging of the planet that once lay concealed behind the shiny exterior of consumer goods is gradually coming into focus, so that every object now carries the risk of moral contamination. The devil, we have learned, is in the detail: “Even the Scandinavian-style minimalist interiors that seem so pure and clean,” writes sustainability consultant Edwin Datschefski, have a “hidden ugliness – formaldehyde in the plywood and mdf, hexavalent chromium pollution from tanning leather, and damage to communities and the landscape from mining the pigments used in white paint.”

And designers are more than happy to remove that taint of evil. Increasingly, the green ethos is providing design with a sense of mission not seen since the Modernist era of the 1920s-60s. With Modernism, the goal was to harness the power of mass-production to improve the material and aesthetic conditions of ordinary people. For green design, it is to minimise the environmental damage, as well as the human exploitation, caused by a product in each stage of its lifecycle: materials, supply, manufacturing, use and disposal. The two movements share a vision of design as a moral crusade, as well as a certain phobic quality; green designers tend to avoid any suggestion of industry and labour with the same fastidiousness that Modernists applied to cleanliness and hygiene.

This sense of purpose has delivered some notable achievements in the 21st century. Most obviously, green design has consistently generated ingenious new materials and methods, from timber skyscrapers and lampshades made of sugar to the use of mycelium, a fungal substrate, for 3D-printed architectural elements. This year’s winners of the Earthshot sustainable design prize include a seaweed-based alternative to plastic packaging, and a flat-pack greenhouse that will allow small-scale farmers to produce higher yields using much less water. Green designers have also shown an interest in humanising production, preferring to use less alienating forms of labour and trying to integrate aspects of local heritage from the regions where they work.

Last but not least, green design is good at artistic propaganda. Its back catalogue is full of works that communicate the ideals of environmentalism in evocative and inspiring ways, such as Stuart Haygarth’s chandelier made from recycled prescription glasses, or Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny’s extraordinary honeycomb vases, each of which are manufactured by bees inside a hive over the course of a week.

Yet there is often an air of unreality about green design, a not-quite-right feeling that starts to nag at you the more you think about it. The problem is most apparent in the grand philosophical ambitions that frequently emanate from the movement. According to its theorists, the mission of green design is nothing less than the transformation of the relationship between humanity and nature, rejecting the modern (and Modernist) project of shaping the world for our own ends and recognising ourselves as natural and ecologically limited beings. A few examples from the archives of Domus magazine will give a sense of this discourse. In 1997 one author demanded a “realisation that man will be able to sustain himself only if the self-regulating ecosystem of the universe continues and is not disrupted by man’s intervention.” More recently, former MoMA design director Emilio Ambasz told the magazine that “Building inevitably changes Nature… into a human-made nature. The goal should be to reduce and, if possible, to compensate for our intrusion in the Vegetal Kingdom.” Finally, consider the words of the eminent furniture design and research duo Formafantasma:

sustainability is a strong utopia because it goes beyond modernity. It’s remote from twentieth-century culture and fully inserted in our new way of understanding our relationship to nature. […] Contemporary civilisation has a growing awareness that we can continue to live only if we work together with other living beings. As designers, but above all as human beings, we have to take care not only of ourselves, but all the other species on the planet. 

All of this sounds excellent, but there is a yawning gap between these lofty aspirations and what green design actually does for the most part, which is to develop marginal alternatives, communicate ideas, and as that Financial Times feature suggests, offer boutique products to those who can afford ethics as a lifestyle choice. What to make of this discrepancy? It raises the possibility that green design has become trapped in a comfortable role which is less about changing the world than legitimising a consumer culture which is really not very green. With eye-catching sustainable product lines and utopian language, big brands can trumpet their green ambitions even as they keep plying their destructive trade in garments, furniture and cars. Occasionally buying eco-friendly goods is an excellent way to feel better about all the other things you buy. It’s almost like the indulgences sold by the medieval church: pay a bit more, fear a bit less for your soul.

There is surely some truth in this cynical interpretation, although I wouldn’t pin the blame on the designers. Like all of us, they have to reconcile many conflicting desires in their lives, including the desire for financial security and for success in their craft. Developing a practice with integrity is admirable, even if it can only serve a small audience. In any case, there is a more generous and, I think, equally plausible way of understanding the role of green design.

The burden of living in a complex society is the knowledge of one’s powerlessness to change the systems in which one is trapped. Reducing the environmental impact of our material culture is perhaps the ultimate example of this, since it ultimately hinges on countless technical issues. At scale, improvements tend to come less from green design than from the greening of design, or techniques that do better than the alternatives without fully solving the problem; architecture that passively regulates temperature, for instance, or electric cars. Progress depends on questions such as: will the more sustainable fibres being developed by Scandinavian companies become a viable alternative to cotton? Will electricity ever be capable of replacing fossil fuels in the most energy-intensive manufacturing processes? How much can we reduce the CO2 emissions associated with cement? This trajectory is bound to be slow, messy, frustrating, tragic, and uncertain of success. But for the time being, it’s all we’ve got. 

Against this background, green design can be seen as a kind of informal arrangement between designers and consumers that allows each party to express ideals reality cannot accommodate. These include hope, imagination, and above all responsibility. You could say this is a fiction, but as long as no one mistakes it for an answer to the world’s problems, it seems like a valuable fiction. Besides, it’s better than just making and buying more crap.

This essay was first published at The Pathos of Things newsletter. Subscribe here.