E019 Design and Sustainability

In this episode, Sushi and Angie discuss the inconvenient truths about design and sustainability, and what we can do about it.

Listen here:

References:

Angie talks about her initial learnings from Story of Stuff https://storyofstuff.org

Sushi mentions the hilarious and relevent Green Humour Comics http://www.greenhumour.com

Sushi designed activity boxes in collaboration with Tanushree Agarwal for Upcyclers Lab https://upcyclerslab.com

Angie mentions using Daily Dump https://www.dailydump.org products for composting at home.

Sushi talks about Bakey’s  http://www.bakeys.com edible cutlery

Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels introduces the concept of hedonistic sustainability in this talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogXT_CI7KRU

Sushi talks about Ecofemme https://ecofemme.org cloth pads and Saathi https://saathipads.com biodegradable pads. These are just a couple of companies making these.

The badass solution to cut down pollution is Air Ink by Graviky Labs http://www.graviky.com/air-inktrade.html

https://thesummerhouse.in The Summer House sustainably produces clothing, including swimwear from upcycled plastic nets.

Two different types of Bio-degradeable bags are made http://www.truegreen.in and

https://gogreenbug.com

https://www.beunpackaged.com is a modern, practical, European version of our traditional Kirana shops.

 

Transcript

Sushi: Hi this is Design Lota, the podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers

Angie: I’m Angie

Sushi: And this is Sushi

Angie: So, Sushi you’ve been busy this past few weeks! Why don’t you tell us what you’ve been upto?

Sushi: Oh yes, I was working on some sustainable products with my friend, Namrata and we launched our products at a fair here in Bangalore! It was quite exciting and also wonderful to see all the green gurus and supporters!

Angie: Lovely! Wish I could’ve made it. I did love all the products you worked on…what was the experience like?

Sushi: The experience of meeting people and talking to them was quite encouraging – but also the whole process of creating products, choosing the right materials, was quite close to my heart as I believe strongly in thinking sustainably about how we approach products we put out into the world.

Angie: That’s great! You know, my first serious consideration of this whole idea of sustainable living was when I saw the “story of stuff” videos. Story of stuff is a series of very simple explanatory animations that helps you zoom in, and then zoom out and see where all the stuff we throw away actually ends up…

Sushi: Yeah, those are quite nicely done…I think my initial exposure to the idea of sustainability was in middle school, but my awareness was pretty much limited to not throwing plastic bottles on the beach, or the olive ridley turtles would die.

Angie: Well, I’m a bit older so for me, in school we were exposed to the idea of our climate changing but it wasn’t of immediate concern or something that would disturb life as we knew it. But things have definitely changed in the past few years, you cannot miss at least some form of sustainability information coming to you from various angles – unless you’ve been living under a rock.

Sushi: That’s true – though looking at it from a consumer’s perspective – because it has so many layers to it – social, ecological, cultural, economic – it can mean so many different things, right?

Angie: Yeah! between veganism, saving the tiger, breaking up with plastic, segregating trash and buying handloom khadi and a whole lot more…, navigating this idea of sustainability can be quite overwhelming.

 

Sushi: I do agree that the consumer’s response could fall anywhere in a broad spectrum from “Who cares”…to “what difference do my actions make” to “I should champion every cause that supports this”

 

Angie: And factoring in aspects like cost, convenience and the most important one – motivation.

 

Sushi: Awareness can help to a certain extent. But not the doom and gloom variety of awareness…because that would just cause people to step back and say “woaah this is wayyy too much work”

 

Story of stuff is definitely educative, but for the skeptics, its nice to have a bit of humor. One of my favourites is the comic series Green humour by Rohan Chakravarty. It’s mostly focused on wildlife, and the impact of humans on biodiversity, but its so funny, you can’t help but relate to what he is saying.  

 

Angie: I also feel its good to create awareness at a young age – and not just through textbooks as a subject in schools. There are some schools that have organic farming and rainwater harvesting as part of their curriculum, which is a great introduction.

 

Sushi: And there are education companies that are not necessarily schools which conduct events, or create products to help children understand what their role can be in this. Upcycler’s Lab, who’s product I worked on, is one such company. They’re based in Mumbai, and they have activity boxes and games that teach sustainability. The activities and packaging themselves are made entirely of discarded materials such as bottle caps and dried up pen refills.

 

Angie: That’s a very fun way to teach kids about sustainability! For adults, events like the Malleshwaram Parisara, where you launched your products – they can be great places for  adults to go have a good time, and also get practical ideas and tools on how to live more sustainably.

 

Sushi: Yes, sometimes we tend to think because we hear all these sustainability terms and concepts in the design community, it’s something everybody is already aware of. But there is still so much to be done in terms of actually bringing change through our actions as consumers, producers, designers…

 

Angie: Oh yes, definitely the responsibilities lie across the board and more on some than the other…

 

Sushi: you were talking about cost and convenience earlier… do you think Sustainability seems to require greater effort, and makes things more expensive.

 

Angie: yes I do think that’s a hard truth we must face. And because of the non-sustainable life being more accessible, convenient and inexpensive – sustainable choices become a novelty and niche and are in turn expensive and require a mindset and lifestyle shift

 

Sushi: With respect to things like waste-management, there are policies that can ensure compliance to some extent…like in Bangalore your waste isn’t collected, if it isn’t segregated…

And of course, citizens hate these policies, because its an additional effort for them.

 

Angie: What do you think can we do as designers to make this lifestyle shift easier?

 

Sushi: I think, the most obvious one for me, is to be involved in creating sustainable products that can address everyday problems.

 

Angie: With regard to waste management – since you brought it up – there are companies like Daily dump, which are really changing the way people view their kitchen waste. It’s seems like a simple solution, but they have successfully introduced the concept of balcony composting to the urban gardener.

 

Sushi: Yes, it’s been quite encouraging to see a lot of people try their hand at this, including myself. Another homegrown solution I really liked was Bakey’s edible cutlery. Although the price is a bit high at the moment, I’m looking forward to eating pani puri in a ragi bowl sometime soon!

 

Angie: Those are great examples…I think a good understanding of the system we’re operating in can also help our choices as designers. For example, Buying locally encourages local businesses, as well as reduces carbon footprint. Even creating products such that they can be locally produced is one way to make a sustainable choice as a designer.

 

Sushi: I think also designers can ask questions like – how might we design better backaging, or take it deeper and think about how to design the product such that it doesn’t require packaging?

I recently bought a box of totally bio-degradeable ear cleaning buds. I was all excited cause, you know, zero waste ear cleaning. When I came home and opened the box, i was shocked to see that each ear bud was individually wrapped in plastic packaging. I don’t know, for what joy!

 

Angie: So, sometimes we are sold the idea of a sustainable solution rather than an actually sustainable solution – like recently we saw an example of compostable paper straws wrapped individually in plastic.

 

Sushi: Yes, it almost seems like the sustainable solution was used as a branding activity but not thought deeper about – there are whole lot of why questions that need to be asked rather than just greenwashing their existing products and hoping the consequences go away.

 

Angie: What are the ways you’ve seen companies do this greenwashing, sushi?

 

Sushi: There are countless examples! You see products labelled “eco-friendly”, like a plastic pen which has a bamboo cap, or a cleaning product which has a herbal ingredient. I think the most ridiculous example is garbage bags. Almost all the brands say “eco friendly” probably because it’s thinner than the average plastic bag, or because it helps you take out the trash. I’m not sure which!

 

Angie: It can be so misleading for the average consumer right?!  This is where the fundamental WHY of a company can get shaken. Take for instance the culture of takeaway coffee – this is not something we are used to in India. We have coffee houses and tea houses and having a chai means sitting down or standing up and drinking from a steel, glass or ceramic cup. So, for a business that runs on the idea of takeaway, it would take a very fundamental change in their business to implement a sustainable solution.

 

Sushi: And speaking of motivation – apart from the branding aspect of being viewed as an environmentally conscious brand, it’s possible there’s more money to be made from the unsustainable choices made by businesses today.

 

Angie: There are also cases where the unsustainable choices are marketed as the more hygienic option – like there are gynecologists who swear by sanitary pads and discourage usage of menstrual cups or cloth – and certainly the sanitary pad companies gain from these beliefs.

 

Sushi: Sadly that’s true! But there are actually multiple innovations happening in the area of sustainable menstruation. Eco-femme has introduced a totally functional redesign of the age old cloth pad. In fact there are quite a few startups that are producing biodegradable napkins with self-help groups, also providing a sustainable means of employment.

 

Angie: Yeah! Such models are a win for conscious customers as well as a boost for local producers. But in an aspirational culture like ours, where being able to afford foreign brands and not having to be accountable for our unsustainable actions – is just the idea of affluence.

 

Sushi: Hmm…tackling this mindset is a very important part of the value that design can bring. I like how Handloom cotton and ahimsa silk are sustainable choices for those who love the finer things in life… We like to think that sustainable choices are always a sacrifice – there is this concept of hedonistic sustainability that proposes that sustainability doesn’t always have to be the harder, sacrificial choice. The solution and its byproducts can often be quite delightful.  

 

Angie: I really like elegant design solutions that are able to address multiple problems simultaneously. Didn’t you use tetraboard material, made from tetrapak, for your products? I thought it’s a great way to reuse tetrapak – a material that’s so hard to get rid of.  We were also talking about air ink – which is a way to arrest air pollution and turn it into inks!

 

Sushi: Yes, air ink is such a *bad-ass* solution. It’s also good to know that this awareness is spreading to the fashion industry, and even indian clothing boutiques, such as the Summer House are making swimwear out of plastic fished from the oceans.

 

The truth is, the intentions are good, and these are great solutions but I feel like they are symptom driven and though they do address problems, there is a lot of room to look at problems at the systemic level and look into the root causes that bring about these symptoms, which can help in the long run.

 

Angie: I see what you’re saying – like tetraboard wouldn’t need to exist if there weren’t tetrapaks in the first place – but there must be good reasons to use them though the environment might not be one of the reasons. The existence of these symptom-driven solutions should not take away the onus from the original producer…I get why they call it an inconvenient truth!

 

Sushi: Some well intentioned solutions even fail when placed in the system, because they weren’t designed with the system in mind. One example is biodegradable plastic bags, which had started gaining popularity. But the consumer was not educated on how to dispose it and waste collectors were not told what to do with it. Would it go with the dry waste or with the wet waste? Would it be melted with other plastic, or put in the compost? There was so much confusion and contamination that the government is now planning to ban them. Even in the case of “unpacked” stores and traditional kirana shops gaining popularity, there need to be sustainable “take away” solutions in place.

 

Angie: Wow, I like how you’ve thought deeply on these things. I have to ask – I’m an interaction designer – my material is the pixel, and of course paper and pens! What do you think we in the tech industry can do about sustainability – both as consumers and as designers and producers?

 

Sushi: Well, the answer to your question lies in the tangled web of wires that are no longer in use – which I guess every household has – along with old smartphones and keyboards!

And all this stems from the idea that we need to constantly be upgrading all our devices and tossing out the obsolete ones.

 

Angie: Oh yes, who can escape the great curse of planned obsolescence?! On the bright side, I’ve heard about Indian smartphone companies that are able to reduce costs by using material found in e-waste, rather than virgin material.

 

Sushi: Yes, that is a great example of Urban Mining where the waste generated from cities goes back into the economy.  From a software perspective, I can think of a few things off the top of my head – like while designing a digital product, you could using contrasting colors that would enable users to reduce the screen brightness, which would in turn reduce power consumption.

 

Angie: Wow,  we rarely ever think of these factors of our work as digital product designers, so that’s an eye-opening suggestion, Sushi!

 

Sushi: Also, you probably do this anyway, but it’s absolutely necessary to design for backward compatibility of devices, wherever possible. In fact I think there are a ton of things that can be done in the tech realm if you actually start thinking about it.

 

Angie: So we’ve covered a whole lot of stakeholders and work that’s yet to be done, but it has been so encouraging to do the research for this episode and find so many Indian companies that are sustainably driven.

Sushi: Yes, I guess the repercussions of not being sustainably driven have been catching up with us quite rapidly over the past decade with natural disasters occurring more frequently in unexpected places.

Angie: That’s true – As human beings we tend to care and start making changes only when the stakes are high or when it hits closer home – health can be a powerful motivation, for example.

Sushi: And What’s good for the earth is also good for us!

Angie: Hey listeners – which of these truths did you find most inconvenient?

Sushi: What are some elegant solutions to this wicked problem that you’ve seen in India?

Angie: And what steps do you take to make your work and your life more sustainable?

Sushi:   tweet to us @designlota and tell us all about it.

Angie: You can find the transcript and all the references to this episode on our blog, designlota.com. We have included a list of Indian companies that are sustainably driven.  

SushI: Join us next time for more stories from Indian Designers.

Angie: Until next time, bye

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