#13 post-2015
Leyla Acaroglu

"Sustainability Does Not Cost More"

Sustainability is a key concept of the Post-2015 Agenda. Australian designer Leyla Acaroglu provides a fun and refreshing approach on how to implement it.

“Design” is not the first term that comes to mind when people talk about sustainability. Nevertheless, product design is a key factor in influencing people’s behavior and purchase decisions. According to Leyla Acaroglu, design can even serve as a mindset. The multitalented Australian designer and entrepreneur aims to promote pro-sustainable change by engaging businesses as well as the general public. Part of her work involves debunking misconceptions about sustainability. In an interview with DDD, she explains the links between design and sustainability and why plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags.

DDD: How can design help us embrace sustainability?

Design is the 99%-invisible thing that infiltrates every single component of our lives, regardless of whether you are living in a developing nation or an industrialized country. Cities are designed; your entire experience on this planet is designed. We are participating in a consumer economy, which is also designed, and the majority of our social and environmental impacts lie here. Consumption is the biggest problem, but also one of the best solutions. Design is the nexus of decision-making and problem-solving. Ultimately it is influencing and affecting humans and how they interact with each other and the world. It is about more than just shaping materials. It’s the way we create, evolve, ideate and solve problems and understand the situation we are in.
In businesses you have separate design and engineering teams. It is very likely that sustainability is only an add-on parameter and managers think: “Oh we have to make it green”. This idea is completely wrong. If it is only an add on, then you do not explore the problem from very beginning, so you will never solve it.

“It is a massive misconception that sustainability costs more.”

Businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the power of design to make them more successful in the marketplace. Designers who are advancing processes of economic development should be prioritizing social and environmental benefits in the things they do, as well as achieving the necessary goals to meet the client’s needs. And there are examples of successes in sustainability and good design that have made companies pioneers in their industries. For example, the carpet company Interface dramatically revolutionized the functionality of carpet and changed the entire industry. The same holds true for the apparel company Patagonia: It significantly raised the bar for social and environmental considerations in the production of apparel. There are countless examples of companies who have risked their necks and really benefited from it because they have done sustainability well. Holistically, they have taken on the challenge; they have been transparent and grown with it. These are examples of standard old businesses operating as usual. But somebody started a shift in the company that spread, benefiting first the company, then the industry as a whole.

DDD: Most calculations are based on costs. When production processes have negative social and environmental outcomes, businesses still follow these chains of production because they are cheaper. Do you see the danger in the fact that usually the cheapest product wins in the long run and not the most sustainable one?

First and foremost: It is a massive misconception that sustainability costs more. Buckminster Fuller, one of the proponents of sustainability and design and an amazing thinker, said: “It is about doing more with less.” The basic idea is that we have to be more effective with what we do. If you approach sustainability properly, the easiest and quickest way to reduce the environmental impact of what you are doing is to reduce what you are doing: the amount of material, increase the longevity of the products etc.

“When you offer value you create capital.”

On the first level of sustainability, you can save money and pass that on to the consumer. When you get to the next step, innovation, you start to change the way you are creating things and the value proposition to your consumer. So then you might increase the prices for your products. But from a holistic sustainability perspective that is better: The more money people have locked up in higher value goods with bigger propositions and higher environmental standards, the less money they have to spend on inferior goods with low environmental standards. I am also a social scientist and from that perspective I would argue that what we have to do is subversively infiltrate the market because ultimately the role we have as designers and businesses is to provide the best quality services to our customers. An economic rationalist might argue that my approach is counterintuitive to the economy, but I completely disagree. When you offer value you create capital. Companies that offer the cheapest stuff on the market will not last. Consumers are interested in these products for only a very short period of time before they discard them. They soon realize that they are buying scrap. Ultimately, they are going to shift their consumption behavior. Second, I do not agree with a complete rationalist perspective based on the homo economicus. Humans are looking for a lot of irrational values; they are motivated by a desire for love, and consumerism is an expression of these irrational desires as well.

DDD: You work with government agencies as well as businesses. How do you approach consulting in these different areas?

In my system theory, there are different systems that are connected: the industrial system, the social system and the eco system. The industrial system is right in the middle. Business takes material from nature, forms it into goods and services, and sells them to the social system. So business is the point where sustainability could happen and does not. Companies really need to take responsibility for the impacts they have, but not only in the sense of taking care of the planet. Sustainability has become a business criterion for the benefit of the company. It leads to consumer demand as well. The consumer demand question is like the chicken and an egg scenario. We do not know what comes first. There does not need to be consumer demand for great products in advance. Just go out and do it. The other point is that we are moving towards a service economy. This is where the future lies and we have to see how this can change the way we are producing.

“There are possibilities for influencing people’s behavior towards sustainability without this spirit of ‘we must take things away from you and penalize you.”

From a government perspective, a lot of people are calling for regulation. I am an opponent of regulation when it is done incorrectly. There are many cases from around the world of regulatory frameworks that have caused bigger problems through unintended consequences. Mexico City is just one example: They introduced a ban prohibiting cars from being driven on particular days to reduce pollution. People just went out and bought second cars. Humans are not rational and will subvert things that are imposed upon them and affect their quality of life. In the end, Mexico City became more polluted due to that policy because it was not well thought through. I believe that regulation plays an important role in some cases, but in many examples regulation is used as an excuse for not doing anything. The role governments need to play is as an inspirer of change. There is one example of using fun to influence behavior, the so-called ‘fun theory’ promoted by Volkswagen. They have presented case studies. One very inspiring one is called the ‘speeding lottery’ and it was done in Sweden. People were fined for driving their cars too fast. They also photographed people who were not speeding and they were entered in a lottery to win the money from the people who had been speeding. This measure dramatically reduced everyone’s speeding behavior. This is a far more interesting approach to regulation and you can directly influence behavior. I feel that there are possibilities for influencing people’s behavior towards sustainability without this spirit of ‘we must take things away from you and penalize you.’

DDD: What has been the reaction to your ideas? Has there been resistance?

The one thing that I have working against me is that I am female. Unfortunately that is something that we still have to overcome in this modern age. Aside from that, most of the time my ideas are really embraced. I hope to provide a fun and refreshing approach to this age-old problem of sustainability. I ended up here because I was disengaged and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem that was presented to me twelve years ago when I was studying design.

“Sustainability is a very problematic arena, but when you can suddenly make small wins in one room, than a lot of bigger problems do not seem that insurmountable anymore.”

All these catastrophes that the world was going to face if we did not change our behavior were presented. I asked myself: What the hell are we going to do? So I began looking for a solutionist approach. That is my agenda: I want to engage people, to encourage them to include sustainability in their day-to-day lives as professionals, and provide solutions to these problems. I find I get a similar response whether I work with Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of companies or children in primary schools. People get engaged and exited because design is fun, playful and empowering. Sustainability is a very problematic arena, but when you can suddenly make small wins in one room, than a lot of bigger problems do not seem that insurmountable anymore. A lot of my work is about uncovering the myths and busting the misconceptions around sustainability. People sometimes want to argue with me. I personally love that because I have science on my side.

DDD: What are the most common fallacies about sustainability?

One of the most important and interesting misconceptions is that sustainability costs more. As I explained earlier, doing more with less often saves money. But an even more problematic thing is the issues of misunderstanding around where environmental impacts lie, and how these myths affect people's decision-making. There are many persistent myths about materials and the end-of-life management of products. Don't get me wrong: Waste is a major issue. But we have a predisposition to focus our attention on that one part of the product’s lifecycle rather than considering the material extraction, manufacturing, and use phases when making decisions - the ‘whole of life perspective’ is really important for understanding where impacts occur and how to design better solutions. Take plastic bags for example. This is a very emotive issue and most people assume that the paper bag option at the supermarket is far better than the plastic bag. Paper bags appear greener; they are made from a renewable resource and biodegrade. These are only material properties though, and not determinants of environmental benefits. Like any other material, paper production uses complex environmentally damaging processes, as does plastic. However the big issue here has to do with the amount of material required to achieve the function of the product.

“For me, this is a really important part of my work: unpacking and exploring the myths that cloud people’s judgment.”

In the case of supermarket bags, plastic is actually better than paper because the bags weigh less, four to ten times less, which means less material and all the associated impacts with producing and manufacturing them. The lifecycle assessments that look into this take all the lifecycle stages (including litter) of both products into consideration and they all indicate that paper is worse than plastic. The point is that when you need to carry grocery items home from the supermarket, the plastic bag option does this in a far more efficient way. Most shops that have switched to paper bags now automatically double-bag as well, thus increasing the impact two-fold. The reality is that disposable options are never good. In the case of bags, plastic can also be better if people opt to use it as a garbage bag alternative, thus reducing the number of new bags produced. Paper bags should always be reused and recycled. Paper, however, degrades and can often only be recycled up to 5 times. The problem these types of myths cause is that people assume they are doing the right thing. This then perpetuates the problem and in many cases actually makes it worse. Examples like this show that we still need to look for the right solutions. For me, this is a really important part of my work: unpacking and exploring the myths that cloud people’s judgment.

DDD: What do you consider the most successful product that you have created so far?

I would say that the design play cards are a really fantastic tool and quite universal. They challenge people to understand everyday problems and then use design thinking and sustainability to solve them. We are really proud of that tool. It is freely available as Do-It-Yourself and people have translated it into different languages. It is used all over the world and aimed at kids as well as adults. The cards pose very simple to very complex problems. One simple question is how to make toasters that do not burn the toast, a complex one is how to deal with the problem of e-waste. You have different design strategies that can be employed in a sustainability context. Then you have inspirational cards that show examples of people who have actually solved these problems. That is the product I am most proud of, since it is connected to most of my work, which is about trying to provoke and challenge criticality and promote a way of thinking that empowers people to solve problems.

Photo: Leyla Acaroglu

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