I’ve just come back from Ambiente, a huge homewares, lifestyle and gifts trade show in Frankfurt to make sure Nigel’s Eco Store has some of the newest, best-designed, and greenest products available.
Ambiente showcased the latest product designs
Well, that was the plan at least.
Despite that fact there were 4,500 exhibitors at Ambiente from across Europe and Asia, I really struggled to find products that were either made from sustainable materials or had a sustainable purpose, or both.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the designs were really eye-catching and there was a lot of cool stuff there, but environmentally friendly or sustainable products were few and far between.
After traipsing around for several hours, I got more and more annoyed about this, so I started challenging exhibitors on why their products weren’t designed with sustainability in mind.
One exhibitor summed it up for me: “You’re the only person who’s asked,” she said. (More than 140,000 people went to the show.)
In other words, here at least, there’s little or no demand for sustainable products for the mass market.
Why on earth not?
We know we are using up the planet’s natural resources faster than it can replenish them; that we throw out millions of tonnes of perfectly reusable goods/materials; that the majority of manufacturing and production pollute and damage the environment and human lives all over the world.
We know all this and yet we continue to repeat the same old patterns.
Designers, companies and consumers all go along with the same old ‘take-make-dispose’ system that we’ve been using since the Industrial Revolution.
Time for a change
I don’t think business-as-usual is acceptable any more. We owe it to future generations to come up with a better way, one in that doesn’t let profit steamroller environmental and social concerns.
Change has to happen all along the supply chain, starting at the beginning of the process with design. About 80 per cent of the environmental impact of a product is determined at the design stage (1).
There are new schools of thought coming to the fore, such as emotionally durable design. This movement, led by Professor Jon Chapman at the University of Brighton, tries to create a deeper bond between people and the stuff they own by including hidden designs in products that only reveal themselves as the items age. This makes it more likely for consumers to keep products than replace them once they get old.
The idea is that if you can increase the length of time someone keeps a product from, say 12 to 18 months, you are delaying the need for the manufacturer to make a new one. This reduces the waste, materials and energy associated by making the product, by half.
These striking tea cups made by Laura Bethan Wood, one of Jon’s students, which reveal a pattern as the tea gradually stains the unglazed parts of the china, are a great example of emotionally durable design.
Unfortunately, new thinking such as this is by no means the norm in the design and commercial worlds. There needs to be more of it.
The way we produce and manufacture stuff needs to change too — the way we do it at the moment is massively inefficient.
Some forward-thinking companies have realised this and are adopting circular economy business models, which are built around the aim of producing no waste at all.
More companies need to adopt these sorts of approaches.
Power to the people
The final piece in the puzzle is us the consumer (retail buyers like Nigel’s Eco Store included). It may not feel like it at times, but collectively we hold the balance of power. Even over massive companies like Nike or Apple.
If we make it clear that the environmental and social impacts of the products are important to us and are very, or even the most important factors in our decisions to buy certain things and not others, businesses will soon get the message.
They already have in some cases.
Twenty-five years ago, Fair Trade goods such as Café Direct coffee were seen as niche, economically insignificant products in a vast global market. But thanks to steadily increasing sales, driven by consumers who thought environmental and social principles were worth paying for (and still do), Cadbury, Starbucks and loads of other big brands noticed and realised they needed to get in on the act. Many now sell their own Fair Trade products.
Consumer power works because money talks. More of us must use it.
We also need to ask ourselves whether we really need new stuff all the time. Can “broken” stuff be repaired? Could your current smart phone last another six months before you upgrade it? Do we need to buy, buy, buy, all the time? It’s this insatiable appetite for new things that drives the whole system.
Break this habit, and companies will have to think of different ways to earn money – more service-based business models, perhaps, where they maintain, mend and upgrade the products you’ve bought from them instead of selling you new ones.
Back at the show, I did eventually find some great new things to add to the Nigel’s Eco Store range. You can see what I discovered here.
But at these trade shows, sustainable products need to be the rule rather than the exception. Designers, producers, consumers – wherever we are along the supply chain – it’s down to all of us to bring this about.
If we could pull it off, it would be a legacy to be proud of.
An energy saving Kettle I found at Ambiente