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How can we practice design without harming the Planet?

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How can designers build eco-conscious design practices? What exactly is design’s role in the climate movement? And what other communities and industries should we look to for the way forward?

Right now, we are taking more than we give from the Earth. The way we’re working through the world’s resources is unsustainable and dangerous.

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Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have released over 1.5 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide or CO2 into the earth's atmosphere. In the year 2019, we were still pumping out around 37 billion more. That’s 50% more than the year 2000 and almost three times as much as 50 years ago.

And it’s not just CO2. We’re also pumping outgrowing volumes of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Combining all of our greenhouse gases, we’re emitting 51 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents each year. And emissions keep rising – but they need to get down to 0. It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about keeping it habitable for all the living creatures on it, including ourselves. Because with this speed at which things are changing, the future seems not that bright for any of us.

To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to get to zero net greenhouse gas emissions in every sector of the economy within 50 years—and as the IPCC recently found, we need to be on a path to doing it in the next 10 years. That means dealing with electricity, and the other 75% too.

Where do greenhouse gas emissions come from? Bill Gates breaks it down into five main categories—what he calls the grand challenges in stopping climate change.

Sustainable Design Strategies

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Environmentally sustainable design (also called environmentally conscious design, eco design, etc.) is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of ecological sustainability.
"Sustainable design is the approach to creating products and services that have considered the environmental, social, and economic impacts from the initial phase through to the end of life. EcoDesign is a core tool in the matrix of approaches that enables the Circular Economy."Leyla Acaroglu, Quick Guide to Sustainable Design Strategies

The intention of sustainable design is to "eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skilful, sensitive design". Manifestations of sustainable design require renewable resources and innovation to impact the environment minimally and connect people with the natural environment.

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“Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn't even need to think in terms of waste, contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”The Upcycle by authors Michael Braungart and William McDonough, 2013.

Design-related decisions are happening everywhere on a daily basis, impacting “sustainable development” or provisioning for the needs of future generations of life on earth. Sustainability and design are intimately linked. Quite simply, our future is designed. The term “design” is here used to refer to practices applied to the making of products, services, as well as business and innovation strategies — all of which inform sustainability. Sustainability can be thought of as the property of continuance; that is, what is sustainable can be continued into the future.

Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore

Most of us want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. But things aren't as simple as opting for the paper bag, says sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu. A bold call for us to let go of tightly-held green myths and think bigger in order to create systems and products that ease the strain on the planet.

Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical. — Victor Papanek

Victor Papanek, Gallery of Living Arts: Design for the entrance lobby of an exhibition in Corona Del Mar, California (1949-1952) © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation
Victor Papanek, Gallery of Living Arts: Design for the entrance lobby of an exhibition in Corona Del Mar, California (1949-1952) © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation

There is a well-quoted statistic that says around 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are locked in at the design phase. If you look at the full life cycle of a product and the potential impacts it may have, be it in the manufacturing or at the end of life stage, the impacts are inadvertently decided and thus embedded in the product by the designers, at the design decision-making stage.

In the early 1990s, to reduce the overall human health and environmental impact of a product, process or service, where impacts are considered across its life cycle, Anneke van Waesberghe with her East Meets West not for profit organization, wrote the initial guidelines for Design for the Environment (DfE). Began as an innovative, non-regulatory initiative to help companies consider human health, environmental and economic effects of chemicals and technologies, as well as product performance when designing and manufacturing commercial products and processes.

It became a global movement targeting design initiatives and incorporating environmental motives to improve product design in order to minimize health and environmental impacts by incorporating it from the design stage all the way to the manufacturing process. The DfE strategy aims to improve technology and design tactics to expand the scope of products. By incorporating eco-efficiency into design tactics, DfE takes into consideration the entire life-cycle of the product, while still making products usable but minimizing resource use.

The key focus of DfE is to minimize the environmental-economic cost to consumers while still focusing on the life-cycle framework of the product. By balancing both customer needs as well as environmental and social impacts DfE aims to "improve the product use experience both for consumers and producers, while minimally impacting the environment".

To accomplish this mission, DfE studied the challenges posed to human and environmental health within industry sectors. Different software tools have been developed to assist designers in finding optimized products or processes/services.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. — Carl Sagan, Astronomer, Planetary Scientist, Cosmologist

Apollo 8 — ‘Earthrise' One of the most famous photographs of all time, it was taken by Bill Anders and is the first colour earthrise. 1968.
Apollo 8 — ‘Earthrise' One of the most famous photographs of all time, it was taken by Bill Anders and is the first colour earthrise. 1968.

This makes some uncomfortable, but design and product development teams are responsible for the decisions that they make when contemplating, prototyping, and ultimately producing a product into existence.

We must understand the outcomes of our actions. Think before design and consume. Everything we do individually, counts. Every choice we make has an impact on the planet. While individually, this impact seems small, when you add everyone up and zoom out – the picture starts to look very different. Respecting the earth is making a choice to understand the gravity of our actions, and to think about the planet we stand on when we’re making them.

There is no Planet B. Now it is up to you, and all of us to preserve and protect this beauty, our only home, one small step at a time in our lives.

Happy Earth Day. 🌎 Explore amazing Sounds of Earth’s collection of ambient sounds of nature around the globe, that will help you relax, meditate and raise awareness for the protection and restoration of our ecosystems.

— That’s it for this edition. See you with the next one.