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!

Design — what is it good for?

The designer’s skill set is seen as a generalist skill set. This might be because designers are trained in two complementary areas: artistic practice and social science. They learn artistic practice so they can master a creative process (sketching, modeling, building, testing, iterating). Designers train in social science so that have tools that help them to understand and collaborate with end users of what they design.

It’s a valuable skill set. But it’s also broad. It can be applied to just about anything. It can be applied to scaling a product like facebook so that the company can get billions of users addicted to using the platform. Or it can be applied to a non-profit so that they can engage their community in positive change.

These examples are two extremes and of course, there are lots of applications between them. But I want to pause here for a moment and ask the people who are interested in design to ask this question: Design — what is it good for? Why is it important to learn this skill set? Do we learn it so that we can help the 1% get richer which, at the end of the day, is what the facebook application is about? Or do we learn this skill set to genuinely make the world better?

Lizard Brain + Illusion of Interactivity

Douglas Rushkoff of Brian Lehrer

Douglas Rushkoff’s on tour talking about his new book, Team Human. The argument he makes in the book is one he’s been making a while now. But something about the timing this time feels different as the problems he addresses in it are reaching an inflection point.

His argument, like media theorists before him, is that modern technology isolates us. He gets into the economics and the neuroscience and the computer science and other big systems reasons for why technology has this isolating effect. And he offers a solution – to connect with people in our local communities.

But in the interview with Lehrer, he wonders if all of the small interactions made by connecting locally will be enough to make systems-level change. It’s an interesting question. If you ask someone who needs to measure effectiveness with quant data, then the answer will be, “We need to intervene not just at the local level, but at the systems level so we can measure it.” But if you ask someone who finds value in things that can’t be measured, then they might say local intervention is the right path.

Rushkoff is the person who asks us to look at what can’t be measured or put into an algorithm and to cherish that part of being human. But it’s hard to do, isn’t it. I appreciate how hard it is and his willingness to simultaneously offer solutions and express doubt.

TAKE IT FURTHER

Team Human podcast

Buy the book from an indie retailer

A decade of food pictures

toms and peaches

As a designer interested in sustainability, I’ve learned a lot of lessons from food system innovators. And as a daughter of a mother who owned and operated a catering business called Gorgeous Food, well, I think food is gorgeous.

So I have a lot of food photos. I used to share them on facebook but since I am cutting back on social media these days, I’ve gathered a bunch of those photos into this google album. Enjoy!

If you’d like to use some of my pictures for something of your own, you may do so as long as you attribute the image(s) to me with a link to this blog.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food on PBS

some of my favorite regional food makers:

Sweet Land Farm (our CSA)

Good Food Collective (innovative distributor in ROC)

Greenstar Coop

New Hope Mills (the pancakes!)

Wiemer Vineyard

Lively Run Goat Dairy

 

 

Artist Spotlight: Maarten Baas

Maarten Baas destroys things. He has a whole series called smoke in which he burns iconic furniture, rendering the pieces to charcoal silhouettes of their former selves.

Maarten Baas reimagines things. He has a whole series called clay in which he hand-molds industrial objects in brightly colored polymer, rendering them cartoon versions of themselves.

Charing or hand-forming classic objects helps us question the assumptions that we make about them. Questioning assumptions is a healthy practice. So while Baas may seem destructive and wasteful, he is really being productive in inspiring new ways of thinking about old things.

When social platforms help us connect locally

Social platforms can be great for connecting people from all over the world. But they can also be great for connecting people locally.

While facebook drives me nuts, I ❤ its events feature. I wish it had an app of its own like messenger does. When the weekend is approaching I use the location search filter in events to see what’s going on in different “day trip distance” towns and cities. This has been particularly fun during the holidays when so many holiday craft fairs and concerts are going on.

I like it when technology makes it easier for me to connect with folks who live and work where I live and work. Craigslist can work like this–it helps co-located people share or sell goods and services. I like searching by location on Etsy. And I remember the moment when the organic farms around here created paypal websites for CSA signups. It felt like a significant shift in their capability to get, keep, and grow community members.

What other social platforms help co-located people connect in meaningful ways? And which ones don’t exist yet? And how might we create them?

 

 

Distinguishing Platforms from Aggregators

Yesterday Innovation Writer, Ben Thompson, shared a piece about two scooter-sharing startups. I thought the piece was going to be a prediction about which startup would be acquired by Uber. Instead, the piece was about Uber and aggregation theory.

Aggregation theory is about how a company understands its goal. The theory distinguishes platforms from aggregators. If Uber only understood itself as a car-sharing platform, then its view of itself would be to provide car sharing services. As a platform, it would view the recent dent in car-share rides made by scooter-sharing as a threat. But if Uber, instead, sees itself as an aggregator of transport options, then they see the scooter-sharing space as an opportunity and thus they would work to acquire a scooter-sharing platform.

As the saying goes, the customer doesn’t want a drill, they want the hole in the wall. Aggregators who understand this have a monopolistic edge over silo-visioned platforms. But what does this mean for startups? Is the dream to get acquired by a huge aggregator and if so, what are the steps you have to take to get that dream? Or is the dream to carve out a niche, to be small but scalable and repeatable in your own space? And if so, how do you win at that?

The answers to questions about the types of dreams startups might have are personal and situational. But the answers to questions about how to achieve those dreams, whether going for an acquisition or planning to walk to the beat of your own drum are less clear. Is it about who you know? Charisma? Tech talent? There’s a lot at play.

Another question: Is aggregator the new word for monopoly and platform the new word for small? Or are there instances in which a startup that doesn’t want to be acquired can become an aggregator in their own right.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spreadsheets are boring yet useful

When a project has a lot of moving parts, sitting your butt down and making a spreadsheet can really help. Without one, it’s just too hard to keep track of WHAT needs to be done WHEN and by WHOM.

Your spreadsheet doesn’t have to be digital. If using a paper ledger or graph paper is a better fit for you, then go for it. Just be sure to use a pencil and not a pen because tasks evolve over the life of a project.

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Project Management for Artists

The Consequences Business

I was recently reminded of this quote from designer and educator, Allan Chochinov, from his 1000 Words on design.

“[Designers] think we are in the artifact business, but we are not; we’re in the consequence business.”

What attracted me to the field of design was the scalability and potential impact of that scalability. But as I got deeper into the field of design, it became clear to me that that scalability can also be terrifying. Because when a designer designs, it’s not just a one-up. If that thing goes into production, distribution, and sales, then that thing scales and makes an impact on the environment and culture. We have to be better about thinking that through. Because what we design has consequences.

TAKE IT FURTHER

Read Chochinov’s 1000 Words here