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Six insights into the role of design in developing sustainable products.

Insights from the Cradle to Cradle Congress 2020 in Berlin

Since I got hold of the book “Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the way we make things”[1]in 2009, I have been fascinated by the philosophy that mankind could, in fact, be beneficial for our planet instead of only “less bad”, or as an ultimate goal, climate neutral. As thought-leader Chemist Michael Braungart puts it “A tree is not climate-neutral. It is climate-positive!”. [2] Nobody would consider telling a tree not to produce so many leaves to reduce ‘polluting’ its environment in the fall. The leaves become valuable nutrients for the tree and are also food and habitat for a variety of very useful organisms. This is the way we should look at material streams in our economies. And that really is a mind shift.

Fortunately, ever more people and companies are adopting the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) approach.

I have been fascinated by the philosophy that mankind could, in fact, be beneficial for our planet instead of only “less bad”, or as an ultimate goal, climate neutral.

Working in a large design agency as a Senior Industrial designer and UX designer, I have the privilege to create many useful and desirable systems and objects. And yet I often have this queasy feeling of not knowing the real impact of the products that I create.

For that reason, I have been keenly following progress in the field of Design for Sustainability.

The Cradle to Cradle Congress is the place to see and discuss the latest developments in how businesses successfully implement the C2C approach. This year, amid passionate discussions about Fridays For Future, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Circular Economy and the German government’s climate program. The C2C Congress moved from Luneburg to the capital Berlin, into the center of attention, and attracted prominent visitors and speakers like Svenja Schulze, the German Minister of the Environment or Members of the EU-Parliament.

Based on my experience in this field I want to share six insights about the role of design in bringing the C2C-principles (or sustainability in general) into reality:

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Embrace Complexity — Illustration: TEAMS

When we try to design products and processes according to C2C-principles solutions are rarely simple. Materials, their components, and manufacturing processes need to be analyzed, supply chains to be traced, manufacturing conditions to be considered and reuse to be strategized. To make things even more complicated all this is influenced by external factors like politics, legislation, taxes and complicated subsidies. Each and every product is an integral part of a bigger system, and we need to think in that way. There is no way around it, the KISS-credo (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)[3] just doesn’t apply here. We need to acknowledge and plan for the complexity of existing structures otherwise we risk making things even worse.[4]
All this complexity can be overwhelming, however, case studies prove it is possible to make the systems work. So let us take advantage of mankind’s unique smartness and ability to team up.
That brings me to my next insight:

No one can have all the knowledge and expertise to succeed in such complexities without actively collaborating with others. Rethinking how we make things is a challenge of global importance and a C2C-Certificate is not just a PR means to increase sales.
It is crucial to find like-minded people and share the knowledge. Some companies like detergent producer Frosch, openly share their knowledge about their C2C-products to enable others to follow their path.[5]

To make things clear, I am not a die-hard tech-enthusiast who believes that technology will save us all. I am talking about conditional love. Emerging technologies are unique opportunities, and if we embrace complexity (see insight 1), we can love tech and use it for the right reasons.
Protecting the environment does not necessarily mean we need to create sacrifices, but using natural resources in new and clever ways would likely enable new technologies to multiply the effect. Digitalization, for example, is already perceived as a huge opportunity. The company Circularise uses blockchain to make material streams more transparent and traceable[6]. Michael Braungart, in his provocative style: “With the digitalization, we cannot have waste anymore — as we know exactly what it is made of”[7].
So let´s not condemn technology, let´s use it, but for the sake of the planet.

As designers, we have a unique position between the disciplines. We are inspirers and protectors. We talk to engineers, marketers, and producers as well as to C-level executives. Our position is at the interface between thinking and acting, between analysis and creation, and our voice is heard. So let´s have our arguments ready — there is plenty numerical evidence already out there on how C2C makes economic sense.

The C2C Congress gave examples of projects that are incredibly brave and visionary, but they are nevertheless being realized: BIGH builds sustainable aquaponic farms in cities, growing fish and vegetables locally[8] and Sekem is greening the Egypt desert[9]. Only if we start with a vision, we can find a way to get there.

And finally, and being a designer I am thrilled to write this…

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Throw the better party! — Illustrations: TEAMS

If you want to save the world, you need to throw a better party than the ones destroying it! Having a sustainable product is no longer a Unique Selling Point, as more companies will (and should) join in. So let´s do what we can do best; achieve design excellence by making beautiful & desirable products that are also delightful to use. This is what will keep them standing out long into the future.

Acting along these six ideas is not easy at all. The daily business is complicated and balancing the interests of clients and stakeholders is challenging. Nevertheless, I believe that design is a catalyst for change and if we are continuously pushing the C2C-ideas into our projects wherever we can, we will gradually be able to enact massive change for the better.

Article & Illustrations by Paul Stawenow, Senior Industrial & UX Designer at TEAMS Hamburg

[1] Cradle to Cradle — Remaking the Way we Make Things, McDonough & Braungart, 2002

[2] Braungart, C2C-Congress 2020 Berlin

[3] The Design Way, Nelson & Stoltermann, 2nd edition, 2014, p. 58

[4] ibid, S. 57

[5] Reinhard Schneider, Owner of Werner & Mertz GmbH, C2C-Congress 2020 Berlin

[6] https://www.circularise.com/

[7] Michael Braungart, C2C-Congress 2020 Berlin

[8] http://bigh.farm/

[9] https://www.sekem.com/en/about/

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TEAMS is one of the world’s leading design agencies. TEAMS is not just a name — it’s our attitude!

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