By Geoff Ledford, Industrial Designer at Soulcake Creative/INDUS Outdoors
The modern designer/manufacturer/consumer loop isn't sustainable. That's well-covered territory and the subject of books, lectures and articles by people that are smarter and much more qualified to speak on the subject than me.
But as a product designer going into the holiday spend-a-thon™, the realities of a society obsessed with stuff always hits me particularly hard this time of year. Every product that we design, produce and sell uses finite resources that will eventually run out. Mass-produced products are easily replaceable (read: disposable), which compounds the problem. And, sadly, the only inexhaustible part of the loop seems to be consumers' incessant demand for more.
What's a designer to do?
As designers, we can't do much to discourage society's obsession with stuff. (Admittedly, I suppose a designer could combat consumerism by creating hard to use, ugly or otherwise inferior products. But then he'd likely be out of a job too.) If designers do our jobs well, we actually encourage customers to buy more stuff, not less.
So if designers are, in fact, the problem solvers that we claim to be, how do we confront consumerism in the face of the impending environmental crisis? To paraphrase leadership guru Stephen Covey, it's a much better strategy to focus on things that you can control rather than worry about the things you can't. (He called it a "circle of influence.") And it's within this circle of influence that design can start to sing a sustainable tune.
Indus designers create a clay model for a hiking stick handle that allows for multiple, ergonomic grips.
A modest example
At Soulcake, we've found a way to help the environment that is within our direct circle of influence—going after upstream sources of manufacturer waste that are many of our clients' backyards. Companies routinely purge scraps and "manufacturer excess" as an accepted part of their business practice—in many cases long before finished products ever get into the hands of consumers. With the support of a network of clients and friends from our product design business, Soulcake has begun to rescue and breathe new life into this waste, via a new brand of upcycled, sustainable camping gear called Indus. Indus is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to cover tooling costs associated with its debut product—a high-end hiking stick made from discarded composite golf shafts, excess technical fabric from snowboard outerwear, and recycled TPE and plastic. With this product alone, Indus aims to save thousands of pounds of unwanted materials from landfills and raise awareness for the environment.
Admittedly, the idea is not a perfect solution to the environmental perils of manufacturing. Creating products requires energy, so Indus still uses resources. True cradle-to-cradle systems are hard to develop but we think this is a step in a good direction—and it's certainly within our circle of influence.
A Call to Action
Most importantly, it's my hope that Indus will encourage designers (and future designers) to rethink how we go about obtaining materials. I remember when we used to build mock ups or models in design school—the first place that students always looked for materials was the scrap bin in the back of the shop. In a world that's already overflowing with "excess" material, there's no reason why designers can't employ similar tactics when creating actual products.
Strength testing the bodies of the Indus hiking stick, made from upcycled carbon composite golf shafts.
A prototype for the handle which allows for multiple, ergonomic hand positions for hiking across a variety of terrain