The spirit within our stuff
Our ancestors really knew what they were talking about when they used the term ‘waste not want not’. And, one thing is for sure, our modern consumerist society has lost its connection to that wise old adage. We don’t cherish objects like the generations before us did and we’ve become a species which is always craving the new - relationships, people and objects come and go.
Everything from fashion to furniture to cars reflects status, identity and power, and it is this reflection which has driven our current unsustainability crisis. Material is used to gauge how well we are doing in relation to others in society. But, there really is more to ‘stuff’ than just showing off.
Woeful waste makes woeful want
In Britain alone, we throw away ten million items of furniture every day. And, the Office for National Statistics predicts that over the next 24 years the population will increase by 10 million, so there will be a lot more waste to come. Along with irrevocable damage to the planet and loss of natural resources.
It’s a bleak reflection of our future world. But an honest one. Mass-consumerism is a dilemma of epic proportions. And it is unlikely to abate in the near future. There is so much stuff in the world we are literally sinking beneath it.
One of the biggest problems is not only that too many objects are being created, but that many are made with poor quality materials, just to increase profit. Obsolescence is applied by business, so we continually have our hands in our pockets.
Profit over people and planet
The current business model encourages maximum profit by producing and selling more and more products. Planned obsolescence means that a product’s shelf-life is minimised, and even if we wanted to hold on to something for longer, we are forced into this never-ending cycle of consumption and waste.
In fact, it was the automotive industry which fueled the idea of planned obsolescence back in the 1920s in the U.S, when General Motors convinced car owners that they needed to buy a new replacement each year, which had far-reaching affects on the the field of product design, and eventually took over the American economy completely.
And now, constant modifications and advances in technology means we are always running to keep up, discarding what was already in perfect working order. And electrical appliances have become unfixable.
But, what if business encouraged us to buy one product, such as a kettle or washing machine, and keep it for life? The technology is certainly there. And as our current crisis deepens, many businesses are going to have to shift their perspective, or get out of the kitchen altogether.
Objects which are built for adaptability and longevity are the future, as well as the now. It’s about changing people’s mindsets and buying behaviour, to encourage big business to change.
The ‘made’ world needs to be re-worked to encourage a society which does not throw away so carelessly. Where thought is applied and emotion attached to objects, so that we don’t continue to have hundreds and thousands of surplus cars, tables and lamps lying around in landfill.
Bill Lawson makes a very good point in his book ‘Building Materials, Energy in the Environment’ - that the cost of embodied energy in materials is significant.
He explains how over the life span of a product - right from extracting all the minerals and putting it all together, then getting it to a place of fabrication, making it and all the energy that goes into that - the entire process of life is a very significant thing and we’re saying by this process of chucking stuff away that it is all of no value.
The emotional ties that bond us
In his book “Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy,” Professor Jonathan Chapman, leader of MA Sustainable Design at Brighton University, looks at the process of design, consumption and sustainability in which the relationships between users and products and their durability becomes key.
His work focuses on the process of finding meaning in products in order to build a relationship with them, and keep them. When an object fails to please our insatiable appetites for the next new thing, we are more likely to reject it, even if it hasn’t past it’s used by date.
Chapman has been working in conjunction with brands like Puma and a number of other businesses to apply sustainability into their design processes and products.
Emotionally Durable Design is not a new concept. The Arts and Crafts Movement led by artist and writer William Morris warned against the soullessness of mass produced things and encouraged a return to traditional crafts. The movement believed when things were created with skill and love, a ‘spirit’ would embody the object and in turn, enrich the lives of its owner. Showing that material things are far more than just symbols of our economic power.
However, we have become such a throw-away society that we have forgotten the sentimental value of creating bonds, consolidated by experiences between person and person or people and product. Thereby losing the idea of durability, long-life and cradle-to-cradle when we invest our time, love and money.
Finding the beauty in the old
We haven’t always idealised the new and the youthful. Ancient customs such as the Japanese philosophy Wabi Sabi, which evolved from buddhist teachings, appreciates the impermanence and weariness which comes with age. Wabi refers to the anomalies and flaws which come from the construction process, adding a uniqueness to an object. Sabi is the serenity and beauty which comes with age, when an object shows evidence of wear, tear and signs of repair. In art, it is typically defined as ‘flawed beauty’.
In order to stay in love with our things, either we need to change and adapt our thinking, or they need to be designed in such a way that we can enjoy them for longer.
Students at Brighton University have been coming up with innovative ideas which draw on the concept of emotionally durable design. Such as a pair of trainers which appear perfectly white when bought, but as the canvas becomes dirty an invisible illustration appears on the surface, revealing a story about the object and its relationship to the user.
“Wood has emotional durability and it ages beautifully. It’s always going to change. The coffee stain can become a part of the pattern. It stains when hot and wet objects are used on it, and lines form as part of the object’s design,” Raquel Sereno of Brighton University told the BBC’s Radio 4 programme. Former VW plant worker Momir from Bosnia must have known this when he built a wooden car from the chassis of a 1975 VW Beetle. It has been made from 20,000 pieces of hand-crafted slices of oak and is in perfect driving order. It’s also completely road legal. The little wooden bug took him and his wife 18 months to create and was modeled off the wooden-tiled roofs which are ubiquitous of his homeland.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a perfect example of emotionally durable design. Momir is more likely to want to hold on to this vehicle for life due to the loving care he has applied to the process of construction, and the bond he has created with the vehicle.
It’s a simple concept - when we invest our time into something, it is more likely to hold greater value in our lives. And subsequently, we are more likely to hold on to it. Rather than throw it on the scrapheap when it loses a place in our hearts.