May 6, 2011, marked the first etchings of a new tree ring in my life. I walked away from a marketing research career at the largest media company in Arizona in order to pursue another degree–this time in industrial design at ASU’s Herberger Institute, with a minor in sustainability. I think there is huge opportunity in product design and execution by using a human-centered research methodology coupled with biomimicry philosophies.
Biomimicry, studying nature’s best systems and then imitating them to solve human problems, has made some headway in the military, medical, and architectural fields but, as far as I can tell, the everyday products we take for granted are farther behind in their adaption and relationship to natural systems. For the most part it seems that we create plastic, we generate materials, we cause runoff, we toxify the environment in search of just the right “in season” product produced in the cheapest and most efficient way possible in order to maximize profits.
We create large machines that sit in huge warehouses that are powered by one of our nation’s three power grids in order to make millions of pieces of plastic ware which get dumped in a garbage can and taken to a landfill to sit for hundreds of years before maybe breaking down. If we’re lucky, a third of that garbage is filtered to a recycling plant and can be used again in another manner–the movie Addicted to Plastic suggests only about 5% of plastic actually gets recycled; the rest is downcycled to produce other products. Why do we use so much plastic? Because it’s cheap, because it can be any shape or color, any weight, and because it offers lots of new solutions to old or new problems. To use something else, or pay for research to find another material is an added expense, an added detractor from the profit growth performance that corporations need to keep their market price high so the big guys at the top of the food chain can retire and allow the next four generations of their families to live in riches.
Yet in a few generations’ time, the great grand-kids of those corporate bigheads may be coughing dust, drinking brown water, and wondering what it was like in the old days when birds could be found in the city and it was actually safe to eat the fish in the ocean.
An unnatural obsession with profit growth drives some companies to morally bankrupt themselves, producing products as cheaply as possible, treating customers with as little service as they can get away with, disposing of their waste however necessary to avoid public scrutiny, keeping worker morale and income at a minimum, and creating products that have a short lifespan because they will need to be replaced and purchased again. This is not a “healthy” species of company culture or manufacturing practices.
I heard once that a species is healthy if its population is growing 1-2% a year. We should be mimicking this in our expectations of companies. Why do we look for 10-30% profit growth a year? If a species is “healthy” growing at 1-2%, can’t we be happy if a company grows 1-2% a year?
By concurrently learning more about how products are currently made–the good and bad case studies–and joining it with studying the science and properties of plants and natural systems and materials, I’m hoping to apply some philosophies found in our natural systems to shift more products to models that are able to be recycled or downcycled again and again and again, that last longer, take less to produce and maintain, and solve problems of design we encounter every day. How can we better design products in harmony with natural systems through practices that corporations may be attracted to adopt? Understanding that consumerism is a modern truth, can we make the process better? My hope is yes, but right now I have a lot to learn.