Everyday I am constantly reminded and shocked by the sheer amount of waste that we produce as a species. Waste packaging, for example, often comes in multiple layers of various materials that are quite often not recyclable. From my experience, in my own life and as a furniture maker, I feel that we need to take a radical look at the way we live, or there will be devastating consequences for future generations.
Waste is a man-made problem: “There appears to be no such thing as waste in nature”. In the natural lifecycle, all waste produced by every natural thing, will quickly become raw material or produce that is used by other organisms and in other natural processes. Nutrient cycles are continuous, which should be the case with humans, but it is not. We have been existentially producing harmful, synthetic materials and products, “The presence of waste is an indication of overconsumption and materials not being used efficiently”. I feel this is inconsiderately reducing the Earth’s capacity to supply us with new raw materials in the future; the phrase ‘intergenerational remote tyranny’ from the book Cradle to Cradle describes this. Consumerist lifestyles seem to ensure that we consume far more than we need to survive.
The Zero-Waste movement argues against overconsumption: It aims to “guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural lifestyles” to eliminate waste, conserve, and recover all resources. This directly applies to the furniture industry, as it converts natural resources into products.
Victor Papanek was an Austrian designer and educator, best known for the books: Design for the Real World and The Green Imperative. His writings were a damning criticism of the design world; he argued that design had become a ‘commercial activity’ and ‘accused designers of creating useless, unnecessary and unsafe products”. He led a discourse on disposable culture and stated that design should be for the common good, creating things that solved actual human needs and problems, which are sustainable in resources and lifestyle. Papanek applauded the introduction of mass-produced, inexpensive, disposable goods; providing they did not result in waste and pollution- which they inevitably did. He hoped that it would free up income that could then be spent on well-designed, handmade products.
“The dominance of the market place has so far delayed the emergence of a rational design strategy”, meaning that no one (consumer or manufacturer) had decided what should and should not be thrown away, and that it is often not economically viable to be sustainable due to current socio-economic frameworks. Papanek talks about ‘Design for Disassembly’ (DFD), a strategy that eases the facilitation of recycling and repairing. He argued that screws, glues, welding and soldering all work against the idea of DFD and products should be durable and made from single materials that can be easily taken apart.
He also preached that we should take more care with raw materials to ensure they are used in the most efficient manner. His example was using offcuts of leather from the saddle making industry to make a book-weight, and then tailored cutlery handles with the remaining pieces. This innovation shows that small offcuts can be used; there just needs to be networks in place so that they can get to the right people; a circular economy would ensure this.
Contemporary furniture designer, Sebastian Cox, states: “Our ancestors used a limited palette of biodegradable and renewable materials creatively, to make objects that were functional, simple, understandable and as a result beautiful”. He attempts to work in this fashion by using coppiced timber and believes that a traditional approach and knowledge of the past can be utilized to help shape the future. In contrast, Alistair Fuad-Luke stated “Sustainability just is not on the radar screen of the majority of designers”. Personal statements from 100 designers revealed that only 1% embed sustainable design thinking (environmental, social and economic), and the remaining amount design for other reasons including business, production, aesthetics, emotions and innovation.
However some excellent examples of environmentally conscious designs are:
As designers, we need to re-evaluate our increasingly waste intensive methods: every process and material choice needs to be considered in depth, so that more comprehensively informed decisions can be made. For example, sandpaper is used in large quantities in the furniture industry, in order to achieve perfectly smooth, uniform surfaces. But what are the reasons for this? Apart from the practicality of a wipe clean surface, tool marks could be left in many areas of furniture.
Designers as well as consumers have become reliant on convenience, which in many cases is dependent in some way upon the use and depletion of fossil fuels. As bespoke designers and makers, we believe our work is sustainable, as it is long-lasting and made from renewable timber, but we have established that there are many aspects of using timber for furniture that can be harmful to the environment, like the application of non-biodegradable glues, lacquers, fittings and other complimentary materials. They need to be chosen wisely and used minimally, in scenarios where eco- friendly alternatives are not available. These aspects are often over-looked and can easily turn what on the surface appears to be a sustainable product or practice, into one that is not.
A huge cultural shift is needed to transition into a low carbon, eco-friendly world. Simpler, lower-tech and lower-energy processes can be relearnt from traditional furniture practices and adapted for waste minimisation in the modern-day. David Colwell’s work epitomises this, using band-sawing and steam-bending, in order to minimise the quantity of components and processes needed to make visually stimulating, functioning, commercial objects.
The circular economy has a large part to play, through better resource management systems and initiatives that ensure resources get transferred to people who can utilise them after they have been deemed as ‘waste’. FIRA’s ‘Furniture Resource Exchange Network’ is a good start, but it needs to be multi-disciplinary in order to maximise positive impact. Initiatives and financial incentives are paramount in order to facilitate recycling and better waste management.
Perhaps the greatest difference of all, could be made much more locally by using local, raw and abundant waste materials and labour, reducing the need for transportation and packaging. Sustaining local, green businesses can start at home, by looking at what stares us in the face and by consciously choosing to make, purchase, and use objects that are durable, versatile, and ultimately, do minimal harm to the environment, with maximum benefit to all.
Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things, by McDonough and Braungart (2000, P.104
Zero waste international alliance (2015) http://zwia.org/standards/zw-definition/
Clark, A.J. (2014) How things don’t work: Victor Papanek and the humanist design agenda. Available at: https://vimeo.com/116053056
Vallejo (2014) Victor Papanek – design for the real world review. Available at: https://circleofdesign.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/victor-papanek-design-for-the-real-world/
Papanek, V. (1985) Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change. 2nd edn. London: Thames and Hudson.
Papanek, V.J. (1995) The green imperative: Ecology and ethics in design and architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.
Sebastian Cox (2010) http://www.sebastiancox.co.uk/pages/sebastian
Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London, UK: Earthscan Publications.
Gant (2007) p.25 Designers, visionaries and other stories: A collection of sustainable design essays. Edited by Jonathan Chapman. London: Earthscan Publications.