A better environment starts with ourselves

“We really don’t need these new sustainable products. Our landfills are already full of products, our second hand shops are bulging with them”

Essay by Ruben Pater. Part of Episode #3.

I was only eleven but I remember it well. The slogan of the 1988 Dutch campaign for climate change awareness: ‘A better environment starts with yourself’.1 I took that message to heart; I decided not to have children, not to drive a car, eat vegetarian, only buy second-hand clothes, and I haven’t flown in years. The Dutch government, on the other hand, does not encourage my lifestyle. If I would have had children, I would get child support independent of my income. If I had bought a Tesla Model S in 2018—a €100,000 car that needs rare minerals which are mined under horrific conditions—I could have received up to €73,120 in subsidies. If I would have bought a large house instead of renting a flat, the government would have subsidized my mortgage and my solar panels. Eating a veggie burger is more expensive, because dairy and meat are subsidized by the EU. A better environment apparently doesn’t start by consuming less, but by consuming sustainable products.

A smog tower, the Fairphone, leather made from fruit, mycelium architecture, solar-powered stained glass windows, bioluminescent light made with octopus bacteria. These are only a few of the sustainable products that have come out of the Netherlands in the recent decades. Even the Dutch Design Week, usually known as an commercial event, presents its 2021 edition with: ‘less consumption, less production, and therefore less waste’.2 This half-hearted call for degrowth is more than remarkable for an event that was intended to showcase product innovations for industrial production.

While sustainable design projects do the rounds on blogs and in museums, showcasing the innovative qualities of the Dutch creative industries, the Netherlands itself is doing quite poorly in climate policy. It has one of the lowest percentages in renewable energy among all EU countries.3 Emissions did go down 17 percent in the Netherlands, but it is still lagging far behind the Paris Agreement. Global CO2 emissions have overall risen by 70 percent from 26 to 36,5 billion tons in 2019, keeping in mind that Europe outsources most of its manufacturing. A recent report by the International Energy Agency warns that, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050—necessary to limit the global temperature rise to 1,5° C—would mean an immediate stop to all new gas, oil, or coal projects, something which almost no government wants to commit to.4 Despite all the good intentions of sustainable design, we are currently heading for a climate catastrophe.

The problem is that even sustainable design has to yield new products. The same Dutch government that nudged me to buy a Tesla instead, also nudges designers towards sustainability practices as long as they produce new, marketable products. The design press plays along, because design projects without a tangible outcome don’t get a lot of views and likes. We really don’t need these new sustainable products. Our landfills are already full of products, our second hand shops are bulging with them. To understand why we keep designing products anyway, we have to go back to when products came to dominate our lives.

Before mass production, products were handmade by craftsmen in a workshop. Both the design and production were done under the same roof and their value was clear. Mass production under industrial capitalism churned out identical goods that were lifeless in comparison. New specialists—industrial designers—had to replace the lost personal touch of the craftsman by reinvigorating these products. This changed our relation with products profoundly. Ever since, designed objects are presented as if they were still made by individual craftsmen (Philippe Starck, Jonathan Ive) while in fact they are made in factories in the Global South by people who are paid poorly and whose names and stories will be left out of the design history books. This process has alienated designers from production, and people from each other. We admire products, we even idolize them. Partly thanks to design, products have become the very fabric of society.

It wasn’t always like this. It doesn’t have to be like this. Designers can use their time and talents to think and build collectively, to learn to grow our own food, to care for one another instead of being in constant competition. To value unpaid labour, to use mutual aid, to set up solidarity economies so that we don’t rely on multinationals for our basic necessities. If we are serious about saving the planet’s ecosystem, if we want to save the earth’s species from extinction, then we need to stop the insatiable hunger for profit, this endless cycle of consumption and destruction. We don’t need more bioplastic laptops or bamboo underwear, we need to end capitalism.

  1. elsendoornmc2.nl/uncategorized/campagne-een-beter-milieu-begint-bij-jezelf. accessed 24 May, 2021.
  2. ddw.nl/en/magazine-archive/654/ddw21-theme-the-greater-number. accessed 24 May, 2021.
  3. ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Renewable_energy_statistics. accessed 24 May, 2021.
  4. theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/18/no-new-investment-in-fossil-fuels-demands-top-energy-economist. accessed 24 May, 2021.