Designers must serve as environmental visionaries

October 23, 2009

— Natalia Allen is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Parsons Designer of the Year. She is founder and creative director of Design FuturistSM, a brain trust and design lab specializing in the development of sustainable, innovative fashion and textiles for client such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Quiksilver. The views expressed are her own. —

Designers have a tremendous amount of power, and responsibility, in fostering human health and creating a sustainable global economy. Most consumer products such as electronics are hazardous to human health. They contain plastics and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, which can cause serious adverse health effects, especially in children. Present education does not provide designers with the necessary insight and skills to practice sustainably.

There is a void in understanding how to build consumer products that are truly sustainable. Many universities and public policies address the sustainability challenge by promoting recycling and the use of recycled materials. However, recycling only prolongs the life of some materials. Recycling does not prevent materials from becoming toxic waste. Presently, each time a product is recycled it looses value and quality.

Eventually the product can no longer be recycled because it is worthless. All recycled products end up in a landfill one day, where they contaminate essentials to life, such as clean air, water and nutrient rich soil. In order to recycle products continuously into new products of equal value, designers have to build with that intention.

Another popular sustainable practice is to use everything with efficiency and in increasing moderation. The regulation of harmful materials and processes help limit exposure to pollutants in the short-term, only when demand is low or there is an accessible alternative. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, world population is expected to pass 9 billion by 2050, with it, there will be an increasing appetite for western consumer goods. Therefore, limiting emissions or the use of toxic materials is not a viable long-term solution. Simply using the pollutants more efficiently will only prolong the worsening of air, water and soil quality.

Efficient contamination of our natural resources is not a real solution. Human imagination and ingenuity hold the potential to innovate and create consumer products that are a beneficial to our life-cycle.

The Threat

Failure to invent sustainable methods for transporting, housing, feeding and clothing the population will have devastating consequences, ultimately resulting in a shortage of natural resources, life quality and expectancy. There is not enough money on the planet to feed a growing population, when the agricultural land is contaminated from excessive chemical pesticide use. Nor is there enough money to bring quality of life to individuals suffering from disease brought about by industrial pollutants, such as sulfur emissions to air, lead from gasoline, phosphorus in detergents, and some heavy metals.

The Solution

In addition to conservation, many experts suggest that the solution to our environmental and health crisis is to educate consumers about what they purchase. This puts the burden on the consumers, making it their responsibility to choose between terrible and less bad.

According to the Clean Air Council, almost one-third of the waste generated in America is packaging. The informed shopper inadvertently contributes to the destruction of precious natural resources because most items are designed and packaged to become waste. Certainly, the restoration of our environment and natural resources will require contributions from both the consumer and designer.

That said, I believe one of the most important steps to improving the state of our world is to better educate and empower designers. Every designer should understand the importance, value and inter-connectedness of nature. Every designer should leave university with the understanding that humans have the potential to create desirable and affordable products, nurturing to the environment and human health. They must understand that population growth is only a problem if consumption and production are destructive. Commerce and conservation are not opponents.

Contemporary designers uniquely produce vast quantities of goods and services that do not belong to a beneficial continuum or life-cycle. Most products are built to expire quickly and pollute people. It is said that, New York City alone spends around $1 million a day to haul trash to landfill sites. Designers of the Industrial Revolution assumed responsibility for leading the public towards better quality of life and tastes. Inventors, such as Le Corbusier, Ford and Teague, successfully transformed the global landscape with their vision for a new world.

Unfortunately, we pay a heavy toll for their well-intended ideals of design universality and efficiency (later exploited). Their desire to inexpensively shut out nature, to pave over it and marvel at machinery, has left us with a toxic cycle of consumption and production. “Under the existing paradigm of manufacturing and development, diversity- an integral element of the natural world- is typically treated as a hostile force and threat to design goals”, says author William McDonough.

Designers must once again serve as great visionaries. Re-imagining how humans interface with the natural world. Building necessities and luxuries that do not contaminate the elements of life: clean air, water and soil. It is a responsibility that requires the participation of many members of society, yet should begin with the creativity and education of design leaders.


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I agree with most of what you said. However, educating designers is just the beginning. A well informed designer cannot practice “good sustainability” if the people that hire them aren’t on board.

That said, I think that entrepreneurs will save the day (and the planet). As consumers slowly start to demand more sustainable practices from product producers, those designers and others who take the entrepreneurship plunge will, as they have in the past, find opportunity in meeting demand. Then, as always, those designers who want to incorporate sustainability into their design practices will be in high demand because the endemic suppliers will finally catch the wave.

Posted by Robert Levin | Report as abusive

Thank you and well said.

Without understanding, the possibility for meaningful change is small. Executives and designers will need to learn facts, imagine new possibilities and create sustainable business models and products together.

In my experience, most sustainable practices still amount to green-washing. There is a real knowledge gap, and a prevailing disbelief in the great opportunity sustainable production and consumption affords.

We belong to a cycle and cannot take from limited supplies without replenishing for long. How do we design products without creating waste? How do we improve the lives of the other 90% if, 10% of the world’s population uses 80% of the world’s natural resources?

Now, there is big chance to do things differently and better. I see it as a race to prosperity and history tells us design innovation will play an important role.

Posted by Natalia Allen | Report as abusive

To see some great examples of innovative design, see winners of the Lifecycle Building Challenge

The Lifecycle Building Challenge is an online international green design competition sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Institute of Architects, and West Coast Green.

McDounough + Partners entered one of this year’s winning entries: tum.php

Posted by Timonie | Report as abusive