Slow Design, Slow Food, Slow Fashion – It’s complicated!

Since mid-March I’ve been designing and making hand cut & sewn leather bags. My goal is to launch a small line at a few crafts shows this fall. From there I will figure out what to do next. Make more inventory? Sell online? Manufacture on demand? Time will tell.

One thing I really enjoy about the process of designing and making bags is the slowness of it. It takes 4 hours to cut, prepare, and sew a full sized bag. In those 4 hours, I know exactly what I’m doing. My focus is on craftsmanship. My hands are busy. There is no room for electronics. Those hours are meditative and when I reach the end, I’ve made something beautiful and useful.

In design, there is a concept called “Slow Design” which rejects the hyperconsumption and waste that’s baked into a lot of mainstream design. The Slow Design movement took inspiration from the Slow Food movement which started in Italy in the 1980s. One could argue Italians have always had slow food values: they love their food; they appreciate knowing who grows it and how; and they make decisions about what they buy, cook, and eat based on these values.

Slow Design practitioners extend these values to physical products. They look at the entire life cycle of a product: where materials come from; how they are processed and by whom; how far the products travel for distribution; how much energy and water they use once in the hands of users; how long these products last; and what happens to them when they are no longer useful. Examining these steps in a product life cycle helps designers make decisions about what they make and why and how.

Slow Fashion is an extension of Slow Design. It’s a response to Fast Fashion, a much hyped about trend in which clothes are designed, made, distributed, sold, then thrown away as quickly as possible. Technology enables Fast Fashion. And the market, too. But Slow Fashion takes a different approach. Clothes and accessories are built to last. They are sourced ethically. They are made slowly. They cost more and they last longer.

As good as this sounds, Slow Design comes with complexities just as mainstream design does. While Slow Design is gentle on the environment, fair to labor, and offers customers an alternative to hyperconsumption, the obvious complication is that Slow Design costs more dollars to make and sell. This means that average folks can’t afford it. I don’t know the answer to that one. Perhaps integrating “Buy One Give One” pricing into Slow Design and food can help bridge that gap. Many organic farmers around here participate in the “Healthy Food for All” program which commits a fixed percentage of what they produce to be sold at a deep discount to individuals and families with economic challenges. Another way for a slow business to bridge the gap is to integrate fair wage jobs. I’d love to, one day, hire women who struggle with economic challenges to help me make the bags I’m making. As I said, it takes four hours to make a full sized bag. I cut, prepare, and sew the leather by hand. In future, I hope to mix and apply my own dyes. I’m gonna need some extra hands, for sure.

TAKE IT FURTHER

Slow Food Pioneer, Alice Waters, on How I Built This (NPR, April 2019)

Can Fast Fashion Be Green? (Vogue, 2018)

What the heck is Vegan Leather (again, it’s complicated)

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Making and Taking

I’m reading Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. In the book, MM asks a complex question: Is it fair that investors and execs get such extreme rewards from successful companies when those companies were built on public investment in innovation? She answers the question, too, with a resounding NO. To be clear, Mazzucato’s not against these folks getting paid, it’s just that she thinks the gov’t should get some of that money too since so often it is the government kickstarting these innovations through their grant programs.

I won’t pretend I’m smart enough to understand all of the complexities here. But these sure are interesting questions.

Link to Mazzucato’s book here

And who can forget this little gem:

Industrial Revolution 4.0 – how smart is it?

There’s a lot of hype about it. There’s a lot of academic research about parts of it. But what is it?

The Industrial Revolution 4.0 is a part of a series. 1.0 was about manufacturing enhanced by mechanization and steam in the late eighteenth century. 2.0 was about manufacturing enhanced by the assembly line and electrical energy in the late nineteenth century. 3.0 was about manufacturing enhanced by automation and computing in the late 1960s. 4.0 is about manufacturing enhanced by cloud-connected computing today and in the early twenty-first century. 4.0 is about data. Lots of it. Analyzing and responding to events in near real time.

But as Dave Evans, CEO of fictiv points out in his recent SxSW talk, if you’ve visited a manufacturer lately, the 4.0 just isn’t there. Not only that, but you can see the problems that could be avoided if it were already in place.

So how do we get to 4.0?

Evans points to a framework developed by Michael Mandel at Progressive Policy in DC. Mandel proposes that we need to invest in technology that enhances three areas of manufacturing:

  1. Digital Machines – how might putting sensors right on the tooling enhance operations?
  2. Digital Distribution – how might we change distribution to maximize locations of connected factories?
  3. Digital Networks – how might we make the most out of manufacturing ecosystems by building networks that allow us to see them more clearly?

Seems like more investment in these areas would be great for the manufacturing sector. Plus, what’s exciting to me as a person interested in Industrial Ecology, is how these technologies might also be used to measure and respond to the environmental and social impacts of Industrialization 4.0.

Now that would be a smart use of tech.

TAKE IT FURTHER

The 4th Industrial Revolution – Kemp Technologies

Michael Mandel’s work at Progressive Policy

Externalities aren’t external

Seth Godin posted a piece last week titled “Embracing Externalities.” “Externalities” is a concept from the field of economics that is used to describe the side effects of industrial activity. For example, the pollution that gets dumped into the river by the factory is considered an externality to the factory’s business model.

In Godin’s piece, he asks the reader to reject this concept. He admits that rejecting it, in theory, isn’t that hard to do. The hard thing is to create and put systems in place to dismantle the concept. Sure this would be challenging but it’s not impossible.

We value ourselves as innovators, don’t we? Let’s innovate our way to a more sophisticated system–one that embraces externalities.

Read Godin’s original post here

TAKE IT FURTHER

Circular Economy – Ellen Macarthur Foundation

 

Inventor Spotlight: ecoLogic Studio

bio copy

Check out these living sculptures from London-based architectural and urban design firm, ecoLogicStudio.

ecoLogicStudio takes a multi-perspective approach to their work, seeking to integrate the slow process of natural systems with the speedy processes of technological ones.

I love it when a design firm posts a manifesto on their about page. Here’s a taste:

We are not satisfied with the current level of engagement of the discipline of architecture towards the global ecological crisis: we believe that a critical as well as active role for architecture is necessary in order for the discipline to have an impact; we believe this role can be achieved by refusing to hide into the production of fictional scenarios, and by engaging with the organisation of matter, energy and information across scales and regimes.

Multiscalarity is critical to this new systemic comprehension of architecture and the “city”; we can experiment with new regional planning protocols by for instance re-framing the growth or farming of micro-algal organism across natural habitats, inhibiting or stimulating their proliferation in the landscape or in custom designed artificial systems, while incubating the emergence of related business ecologies [see the Regional Algae Farm project presented later].

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Responsive Landscapes

Inside Smart Geometry

Slow Design on wikipedia

The Economic and Environmental Impacts of Bitcoin Mining

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former aluminum plant via ZigZag podcast

The folks at ZigZag podcast have been reporting a series of stories about a bitcoin mine up in The North Country of New York State. The mine they are reporting on sits on the Moses Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence River. This dam, built in the mid 20th century, attracted companies like GM and Reynolds Aluminum to build and operate factories there. Today these factories are being converted to bitcoin mines which on the surface seems kind of cool, but it’s worth a deeper look.

Economic impact. Bitcoin mines extract an insane amount of value for their owners. But as for labor, its computers that do most of the work in the mines, not people. This means that the job numbers that come with these mines aren’t as high as they were with aluminum plants. Even though we know we are in the age of automation, there’s some confusion in how town and city officials negotiate deals with incoming mine operators because they, the officials, have a hard time understanding bitcoin.

Here’s an idea for these folks: since the “new job” numbers are likely to be low in this sector, explore other options for extracting value from the mine for people in your town. If it’s not jobs, what is it? A one time expense for the mine, like a community baseball field, might not be the best fit. Look for ways to extract value over the lifetime of the company in a way that paychecks do.

Environmental impact. Mining bitcoin is energy intensive. Much more so than producing physical goods. However, this impact is something that most of us don’t think about because bitcoin and other crypto goods are digital and seem abstract. But make no mistake, the impacts they have on the physical environment and human health are real.

There is some hope if we use a triple bottom line lens for crypto. Triple bottom line considers economic, environmental, and social impacts of business activity. There are some experiments that use crypto to track the environmental and economic impact of its use, then use that data to make it better. But this innovation will only happen if we choose to do make it a priority. In the meantime, let’s be wide awake about the systemic impacts of bitcoin and other digital goods.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Energy cost of ‘mining’ bitcoin more than twice that of copper or gold
(The Guardian, Nov 2018)

on streaming:
Greenpeace says binge-watching all those TV shows is bad for the environment
(Quartz, Jan 2017)

a call for innovation:
Cryptocurrency mining could become the new face of energy storage
(World Economic Forum, Sep 2018)

Kids Build a Bakery in the Forest

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Brawn & Bread by Studio Micat

Bread & Brawn is an outdoor, human-powered bakery designed by Studio Micat and built by kids in a New England summer camp. Human-power is used to mill the grain, knead the bread, and stoke the fire. What a lovely project for children to build and use. This project affords a design experience that nurtures a sense of appreciation for how many resources go into making seemingly simple, everyday items.

See more detail on the project here and here

A superfund to address the negative impacts of social media?

Check out this interview with investor and author Roger McNamee. McNamee’s written and recently published, Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe in which he articulates his thoughts on the negative impacts that facebook has on our economy, media, public health, and our brains. He argues that the gov’t needs to respond to these impacts as they responded to industrial pollution in the late 1970s – they created a system to hold companies accountable for cleaning up the mess.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  1. Delete your facebook account or, at least, don’t use it as your primary news source
  2. Curate your own news feed with an RSS reader like feedly
  3. Subscribe to and support quality journalism like WNYC’s On the Media
  4. Tell your reps that they need to address these issues at a policy level. (And if they need help getting up to speed, encourage them to reach out to you or someone you know who is tech savvy and a clear communicator)

Understanding the Environmental and Social Impacts of Commercial Products

Yesterday I saw yet another headline about green packaging. Something like: So and so android phone is changing their packaging from plastic to paper. My greenwashing antennae immediately went up and I asked these questions, “How much of an impact will a change in the packaging make? Does this change offset the conflict minerals used in the phone or the embodied energy in its manufacture and use over the product lifetime? Is changing the packaging for a cell phone solving the right problem?”

Our obsession with eco-friendly shopping bags and packaging is merely a metaphor for how important consumer culture is to us. If only we make green bags to put our purchases in, then everything will be ok. In addition to revealing our values, this focus on packaging also reveals our limited understanding of the environmental impacts of the stuff we make, sell, buy and use.

There’s a framework called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that can help us gain a holistic understanding of the environmental and social impacts of commercial products. My explanation here is not for environmental scientists – they already know this stuff. But it’s for designers and inventors. And it’s also for those of us on the ground, average people with curiosity about these things. It’s for people who can handle grey areas without black and white answers. It’s for people who won’t shut down when faced with complexity but rather continue to be curious and questioning.

Life Cycle Assessment – phases

RAW MATERIAL. This is to examine where materials come from. Some questions we might ask are: Are the sources sustainable? Does extracting them have negative impacts? Do they use fair labor practices? Are the economics fair? Do the growers get a fair price for the raw materials they grow (think coffee or chocolate).

PRE-PRODUCTION. Raw material needs to be processed for manufacturing. In the case of reclaimed plastic, it needs to be processed before it’s recycled and turned into new material. As for leather, a material I’m working with now, it needs to be tanned. There are different types of tanning. Vegetable tanning uses a lot of water. Chrome tanning uses more chemicals. You can also look at labor practices including the health impact on workers in this phase.

MANUFACTURING. Questions you might ask here are about the environmental impacts of how a manufacturing shop is run. And what are the labor practices? Some shops that I’ve visited around here have programs that train people who need a second chance to work on the factory floor. This is pretty awesome and the handful of folks I’ve met in these rolls seem grateful. Other factories use chemicals that make their workers and surrounding communities sick. So when voters and their reps complain about regulation being anti-business we need to remember that regulation is also pro-human health.

DISTRIBUTION. The simple question to ask here is how far did the product (and its components) travel before it got into the consumer’s hands. This can be one of the benefits of shopping local. If the merchant you are buying from is selling locally made goods, then the goods didn’t travel far. There are also packaging questions to consider in this phase. Is the product designed to be shipped flat packed and thus take up less space on a ship or truck? And at the risk of causing a distraction, I wonder what impact distributed manufacturing might have on the distribution phase. Distributed manufacturing is what affordable desktop tools like 3D printers enable.

USE. These are the questions asked once the product is in the user’s hands. Let’s look at a home energy monitor. No matter how the product was manufactured, we want to look at the impact on its user’s behavior. Does it cause them to significantly lower their energy use? Or with a dishwasher, does it cause it’s user to use less water? One that’s really complicated is streaming video – how much energy does this use in the home and how much does it use in servers around the world? And if you fly a lot, well jet fuel has a much greater impact on the environment than any shopping bag.

DURABILITY. This phase is often misunderstood as “longevity” with longevity equalling “good.” But that’s not complete. I think of durability as a proportion that looks like this:

HOW LONG IT IS USED :: HOW LONG IT LASTS

With a chair, for example, I might want it to last for 100 years. Or longer if it’s designed to be an heirloom. But for picnic ware for a party at the park, it’s only going to be used for a few hours. So it doesn’t need to be designed to last 500 years in the landfill. Something that bio-degrades might be a better fit.

END-OF-LIFE. This phase is about tracking where the product and parts will go when we are finished using it. A lot of what happens in this phase is determined in earlier phases of the product life cycle. Some products are designed to be disassembled. Some products release toxins when disassembled (think e-waste). Some products are designed to have a second function. Some packaging is designed to be taken back by the company. Some materials keep their integrity when they are recycled and others lose integrity.

So these are the phases of LCA. If you need fewer questions and more quant data, do a search for “LCA calculator.” I haven’t reviewed those but if you find one that you like, let me know!