Designers are not to blame for the climate crisis Skip to content

Designers are not to blame for the climate crisis (Dezeen)

Designers are not to blame for the climate crisis

Designers need to stop feeling guilty about putting ‘more stuff out into the world’ and start using their creativity to become part of the solution, says founder and director of Making Design Circular, Katie Treggiden.

There’s a statistic that gets banded about a lot in sustainability discussions: 80% of the environmental impact of an object is determined at design stage. It is usually credited to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and it is absolutely true. From material choices to end-of-life considerations, by the time an object goes into production, from a sustainability point of view, its fate is largely sealed. But when designers hear that statistic, what they often hear is, ‘80% of this mess is my fault.’ And it really isn’t.A report published in 2017 found that 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 could be attributed to 100 fossil fuel producers. Much like the tobacco industry before it, the energy industry has not only contributed to the problem but worked hard to curb regulations and undermine public understanding. In 2015, an investigation by Inside Climate News found that Exxon had conducted cutting-edge climate research decades previously and then pivoted to ‘work at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.’ Luckily there were those who spoke up for the science:

‘It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways…The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out. Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.’

It might surprise you to know that these are the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, from a speech she gave in 1989 – more than 30 years ago. The arguments she presented were not new, even then, but coming from her, they gained traction and environmentalism went mainstream.

However, her position was short-lived. In her autobiography, Statecraft, she writes, ‘By the end of my time as Prime Minister I was also becoming seriously concerned about the anti-capitalist arguments which the campaigners against global warming were deploying,’ and so in a perceived trade-off between planet and profit, she chose profit. Her policies in the UK led to urban sprawl that threatens biodiversity; to prioritising investment in roads over rail and bus services that could help us all reduce our carbon footprints; and to the privatisation of water companies that results in polluted rivers and oceans to this day. But her influence in the Global South was even more profound. Under her leadership, Britain, together with the US, led World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation moves that forced more than 100 indebted countries to undertake – now widely discredited ‘structural adjustment’ programmes, including the deregulation and privatisation that paved the way for global farming, mining and forestry companies to exploit natural resources on a global scale.

In her autobiography she credits, not scientific journals, but three books in particular for her dramatic U-turn: Julian Morris’s Climate Change: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom, Richard Lindzen’s Global Warming: The Origin and Nature of the Alleged Scientific Consensus and Fred Singer’s Climate Policy: From Rio to Kyoto: A Political Issue for 2000 and Beyond – all three authors were members of free-market think tanks receiving funding from the fossil fuel industry.

Had Exxon acted ethically on the results of its own research, had Margaret Thatcher stuck to her guns instead of being lured by the temptations of free-market economics, and had the momentum she created continued, the climate crisis might have been resolved before many of today’s designers were even born.

But the villains of this story aren’t all from decades past. As of this year, Amazon is selling – and shipping – $4,722 worth of products every second. With a business model built on what Greenpeace describes as ‘greed and speed’, many of those items are returned as fast as they are ordered and in 2021, an ITV investigation found that in just one week, a single UK warehouse marked more than 130,000 returned items “destroy”.

If you’re a designer, none of this is your fault. Not the climate crisis, not the waste crisis, not the sewage in our oceans. If we’re looking to apportion blame, let’s look to enterprises like Amazon making excessive profits while caring for neither people nor planet, the energy companies still expanding their fossil fuel operations, and the global leaders still lacking the courage to make meaningful commitments at COP26 in Glasgow last year. It might well be their fault. It is certainly not yours.

But what about that statistic? If 80% of the environmental impact of an object is determined at design stage, doesn’t telling designers that it’s not their fault let them off the hook? Quite the opposite. Think about the last time you had a brilliant idea, solved a problem, or came up with an innovative solution. How were you feeling at the time? Guilty? Overwhelmed? Hopeless? I’m guessing not, because those feelings are not the soil in which creativity thrives. I’m guessing you were feeling curious, optimistic and collaborative – all the impulses that draw designers to our industry in the first place. We need designers to stop feeling guilty, so they can reconnect with those feelings, tap into their creativity and become part of the solution.

The climate crisis is a ‘wicked problem’ – a term coined by design theorist Horst Rittel to describe social or cultural problems that seem unsolvable because of their complexity, their interconnectedness, their lack of clarity – and because they are subject to real-world constraints that thwart attempts to find and test solutions. In other words: there are no magic bullets. Previous generations might have kicked the can down the road hoping that future technology would save us, but we no longer have that luxury.

So, if you’re a designer, none of this is your fault, but it is your responsibility. To design is to solve problems – and this is the biggest problem humanity has ever faced. We have a unique – and perhaps the final – opportunity to tackle this issue head on and do something definitive. But we can’t do that mired in guilt. To overcome the climate crisis, we need to design, not from a position of pessimism and shame, but in the mode in which we all do our best work: when we are driven by curiosity and excited about a future that, together, we can help create.

Katie Treggiden is an author, journalist, podcaster and keynote speaker championing a circular approach to design. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a membership community in which designer-makers get to feel proud of contributing to a thriving planet with every product they make.

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Katie Treggiden is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular — an international membership community and online learning platform for environmentally conscious designers, makers, artists and craftspeople.
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