The 2002 Design Council Annual Review stated that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is defined at the design stage. Today we realise that our choice of materials and the way we use them is affecting our planetary future. We must all confront the impact of our work and take action. It’s time to make a material change to the way we act as designers.
Materials are the foundations of all physical products. In the pre-industrial era, our every-day needs were provided for by local craftspeople working with local materials – animal, vegetable and mineral – available in their natural environment. Material sources were nurtured and maintained to ensure a sustainable supply, and production ‘waste’ was largely returned to the land whenever feasible, renewing the cycle. The aesthetics that emerged from these processes were a natural by-product of the craft techniques and functional characteristics of the materials, which developed into archetypes that have sustained for millenia.
Since the industrial revolution dramatically accelerated our exploitation of the world’s natural resources, the majority of materials used in mass production have derived from virgin sources extracted from the earth. Within our living memory, and certainly in the last two generations characterised by mass consumption, material selection for a product was a relatively straightforward – and apparently benign – process. Timber, aluminium, steel, plastic, textile, glass…materials were selected on the basis of price and functionality, lead times and reflected investment in tooling, minimum order quantities (MOQs), expected sales and colour selection. Rather than using regenerative materials, grown by nature using solar energy, we have been extracting and refining cheap materials such as oil, where the cost lies in labour and extraction processes rather than the true value of a precious, finite resource.
In the last 20 years, the development of a truly global supply chain further opened up international channels of supply that were handled by agents and procurement teams based on classical tender processes. The ‘outsourcing’ of material supply and production to remote and often opaque centres of industry had the unintended consequence of clouding our understanding of the impact of these decisions and the damage done to both human and planetary health.
The climate emergency that we are now experiencing has forced us all to consider what we must change to reduce and reverse our impact on our ecosystem.
As part of Pearson Lloyd’s ongoing research to improve the circularity of the mass-produced products for which we are responsible, we have conducted a review of the material palette of our projects in recent years. We were struck by how different they were compared to only a decade ago, and we hope that they can inspire more designers to make commitments to circular design principles, with the confidence that they can indeed be achieved at scale.
In 2009, we designed new seating for the City of Bath with an expected lifespan of 40 years. Our benches were long-lasting, low maintenance and easily repairable. We selected sand-cast bronze because it is a self-finished material that patinates with age and can be recast infinitely. Standard-section timbers can be replaced or repaired by local tradespeople via exposed fixings, allowing easy disassembly.
A few years later, we designed the SixE chair for Howe with the goal of avoiding composite materials that prevent recycling. Most chairs use glass-fibre additives to enhance strength, but we challenged ourselves to design a form that would provide inherent stiffness while retaining comfort. This allowed us to specify 100% fibre-free polypropylene, which can be remoulded with minimal reduction in its physical or visual properties. This spring, with Howe, we are launching a new version of SixE using entirely recycled polypropylene.
More recently, we created bFRIENDS, a desktop accessory collection for Bene made from post-consumer waste: recycled bioplastic food packaging diverted from landfill. Its CO2e is an extraordinary 0.9kg, compared to 10kg for polyamide, which is usual for this typology. When compared to a traditional supply chain of sourcing tooled, injection-moulded parts from China that are then shipped to Europe, the embodied carbon of individual units is six times more efficient.
For Profim, we designed Revo a modular seating system using recycled polypropylene (REPP) for the frames, rather than plywood – a glued, composite material that can not be recycled. With no additives, REPP can be endlessly remoulded. We ensured the upholstery would be loose-fit, using no glue or permanent fastenings, so that all of the materials in the product could be separated and returned to their technical cycles.
And with Modus, we developed a new seating system free from polyurethane, one of the most troublesome materials in furniture production today. The seating – almost completely free from extractive materials – comprises pocket springs, coconut fibre and latex matting covered with a layer of cotton.
In this short period, we have been clarifying circular principles that inform how and why we select materials for a project, and they almost entirely reflect a more planet-centred ethos. Our aim is to reduce overall material use and energy expenditure, and to engineer longevity and circularity.
The principles are relatively simple: materials should be bio-based or recycled rather than extractive; and the design should be reusable, durable, repairable and, at end of life, recyclable. By changing the value proposition to move carbon equivalence and circularity to the top of the decision hierarchy, the outcomes look entirely different.
An example of the new paradigm we are now working within is the conversion of post-consumer waste streams into viable material sources for mass production. This is becoming a significant component in the development of a low-carbon future, stimulating numerous innovations in material science. Our ongoing exploration of distributed, digital manufacturing in collaboration with Batch.Works has been a particularly energising experience.
This period in the history of manufacturing represents an essential opportunity for radical thinking in materials, new forms of making and new models of consumption. We are living and working at a time when design has a real and positive role to play in shaping the future health of the planet and, with it, our survival as a civilisation.