Last week I visited Rhode Island's central landfill to do some research on recycling and composting. As I sat in an office overlooking the dump, I couldn't help but marvel at the endless stream of trucks filling the valley with what I like to call the by-products of bad design and carelessness. Bad design because almost nothing we buy is designed to be re-used at the end of its life, and carelessness because so much of what we discard could be re-used or recycled if only the items were placed in the proper bin. All this got me thinking about the ethics of consumption, and what it would mean to eliminate the concept of waste.
Being Less Bad is No Good
Under the current model of consumption it is very difficult to be an ethical consumer. One can essentially choose between "bad" and "less bad" products; organic and free trade labels help, but greenwashing has become an insidious problem, making it difficult to distinguish truly green advances from baseless claims. But even more importantly, for the conscious consumer consumption is a necessary evil at best, and a scourge on the Earth at worst. What we forget is that all living things consume, the only difference is that humans are the only life forms that actually deplete, destroy and pollute natural resources. That doesn't have to be the case. It's possible to manufacture products that are healthy for ecosystems, human society and the corporate bottom line.
Of course, there is already a name for this concept: cradle to cradle design. In their great book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart describe our current industrial/consumer system as Cradle to Grave: we pull things out of the "cradle" of nature, use them, and then discard them in the "grave" of landfills. Instead, they offer the idea of cradle to cradle, where products are designed to either be infinitely reused in closed industrial loops, or to safely biodegrade and replenish the soil. They have come up with a cradle to cradle certification for products as diverse as envelopes, office chairs and diapers.
A New Ethics of Consumption
What cradle to cradle offers us is a new ethics of consumption. We can try to be less bad but, as Mr. McDonough asks, "why not set out, right from the start, to create products and industrial systems that have only positive, regenerative impacts on the world? Why fine-tune a
damaging system when we can create a world of commerce that we can celebrate and unabashedly applaud?" Imagine walking into a store, and choosing products solely on their cost and functionality, rather than their environmental or social impacts. Imagine every car in a dealership is clean, quiet, efficient, and designed to be disassembled at the end of its life. Imagine a world in which landfills no longer exist, corporations make money while replenishing, cleansing and protecting natural resources, and consumers express their ethics with every purchase.
Such a world is not a fantasy, and will soon become a necessity. We just need the right policies and behavioral changes in place to incentivize designers to design with full life-cycles in mind and consumers to be conscious of what they do with everything from fridges to paper to batteries. For instance, companies could be made responsible for their products at the end of their life, forcing them to either cover the cost of safely discarding them or, if they are smart, to design them to be easily taken apart and made into new products. But that alone isn't enough. What we really need is a revolution in how we think about designing, manufacturing, selling, buying, consuming, using and discarding consumer goods.
The recent animated film Wall-E, about an Earth that has been overcome by garbage, is haunting because if one visits any landfill or slum today, one will see a landscape transformed by the excrement of our consumer society. The typical response to consumerism is either to accept it or to attempt to avoid it. Yet there is no reason why consumerism has to be bad. Unfortunately, we'll have to see a new ethics of design and policy making before we can see a new ethics of consumption.
Quote Via: ::Arashi.com
More on William McDonough
William McDonough on Nuclear Power
Esquire: William McDonough Big Thinker of the Year
Sustainability + Functionality with WIlliam McDonough
Quote of the Day: William McDonough on the Triple Top Line
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more