How to Mitigate Major Project Errors, Pt. 3 of 3
The Top Five Design Interview Mistakes

Sustainability on the Compost Pile


Two caterpillars, three baby slugs, and a spider. That's what I discovered when I was washing my broccoli from the farmer's market.

I'm a big proponent for supporting my local farms. But for a city slicker like myself, raised in the suburbs and weaned on sparkling clean Costco-sized produce, the brand experience I'm having with eating local produce is taking me straight back to nature—and in a way that makes me a little queasy.

Until about four years ago, my process of eating fruits and vegetables had been managed by large factories bent on quality assurance and pallet-perfect stacks of nectarines. As a result, the inherent waste in the activity was disguised from moi, the consumer.

Now, a little bit of the factory is me. And really, that's how it should be. If I was a farmer born in the 1860s, things would be a hell of a lot harder in this regard: I would be growing these fresh strawberries, weeding them, watering them, killing any major pests or bugs, crouching down on my knees to pluck their sweet fruit off the bushes—thereby dirtying my knees.

A whole world of physical labor has now been replaced by reading "1 pint 4–" off a chalkboard, peeling cash out of my wallet, carrying the carton home, turning out the berries into a colander, and picking out of the bunch the five or six berries consumed by rot or sporting a happy little worm. Really, I need to get over my squeamish stomach (and my allergy to spider bites... whenever I find a spider in my produce, I'm apt to throw him into the compost bin instead of carrying the poor arachnid outside, where he's likely to get chomped instantly by the birds that live around our apartment.)

Just as the process of buying a bag with three pristine red peppers plays into our notions of packaged food perfection—and disguises the waste inherent in the plant-to-store manufacturing process—what in our genetic makeup causes us to reach for the unblemished fruit instead of the peach sporting a black eye?

The problem, really, is our notion of short-term value overtaking the impact of our long-term actions. And this is made manifest through our notion of waste.

Any of us who grow vegetables in a garden (which I have) or pick fruit from trees and bushes on public land (I've been spotted plucking blackberries and huckleberries from the bushes near Shilsole Marina in Ballard) don't feel so bad when birds and bugs chew through a handful of our yearly crop, or mold reclaims a few berries that are a few minutes shy of overripe. Time and energy invested in, for a product yielded from seed.

But when we step up to the fruit stand with four singles and a hankering for blueberries—this is where the trouble begins, and our mindset flips from a natural-world order to that of the transaction. This happens without us even realizing it. My money is a proxy for value borne out of another person's labor. I feel good about supporting Tiny's Organic Orchard with the purchase of a bag of cherries, but deep in my mind, I'm weighing the value of $4.50 per lb against the heft of the perfectly ripe, sweet fruit in my hand. And I feel good eating the cherries, knowing that it was money well spent for the amount of pleasure extracted from them.

I'm telling myself that by eating local (a.k.a. spending money for "product"), I am reducing my carbon footprint, fostering a closer connection to the Earth and reclaiming some of the grit under my nails. Now how much of that description is just a story that I'm fitting to this moment? Can I get out my scorecard and notch down the two pounds of carbon that I just kept out of the atmosphere?

I'm not arguing against buying local, or suggesting that we live in a manner that willfully contributes to the destruction of our planet, etc. I'm more interested in exploring as follows: how our fava bean-counting mindset is inherent to our relativistic notions of long-term environmental change extrapolated from short-term actions. The problem isn't the product, so much as the system within which it's delivered.

We spend so much time picking through the pile of apples for the perfect capital-A piece of fruit that we can then take home and drop in the bowl for a future day's lunch. This pursuit of the perfect sample has been beaten into us by a society laser-focused on 100% polish as a fundamental attribute of value.

However, we feel so good about finding the great buy in the produce stack that we (un)consciously attempt to forget what happens to the fifty other pieces of fruit that never find their way into our homes or our mouths. Back that spoiled produce goes into the environment, via compost or trash. We confuse the short-term gain for the long-term cost: to our local grower, to our supermarket, to the megafarm in Chile churning out brussel sprouts, and so forth. The chain of impact cascades so far back from that single transaction that being mindful of our choices is entirely paralyzing. As a species living in a consumerist society, we almost have to focus exclusively on the short-term effects of our actions to put on our pants and go to work.

It's no wonder so many pundits slag companies hopping on the green-washing bandwagon. It's the only way they know how to operate as people, let alone a corporation. And while they're working to improve their systems of production as much as they can, there's always a point of hypocrisy hidden away in their labors. No matter how hard the fruit seller tries to hide the blemish, we discover it when we pick the piece of fruit/product up from the stand.

There's only really one way to get people past this issue completely: Stop trying to hide it. Obliterate the concept of waste as a negative attribute of consumption, and embrace it as part of a living process that goes hand in hand with notions of product reuse and rebirth.

For designers, this means being unafraid to present options to our clients that have extraordinarily low impact and considering solutions that exploit waste products as design opportunities. (This has more impact for print and product design than interactive work.) And this isn't a novel activity—designers have been doing it for decades. But when a project reaches a certain scale, we force in economies of mass production. This is also when we lose a direct connection to the material at hand.

Since we're often tasked with projects that require mass reproduction, choosing to invest physical time and labor into an activity of making forces active awareness and a personal connection to the material. Just as growing tomatoes in a garden forces a deep personal bond between you and the fruit—which flips your mindset from transaction to interaction—clients can shift from paying you for a service rendered (and washing their hands of the production impact) to truly understanding the physical effect of their marketing and product design choices.


So for all of us, the real question here is: What do you consider waste in your life—as a person and a designer? And which of those types of waste can't be returned to the Earth in a meaningful way? We need to put aside clients here, because the litmus test for creating waste is not through a client's eyes.

Could you imagine asking your clients to hand-assemble a brochure with you that's made from paper reclaimed from a printer's remainder bin, then printed with soy inks—on a wind-powered press—which had then been hand-tied with paper belly bands that are made from the leavings trimmed off the same press sheets?

To a client's ear, this sounds just plain crazy. Why would they spend a week assembling that, when they can just outsource it to a vendor?

Well, why would I grow asparagus in my garden, losing a few dozen stalks in the process and expending many weekends of effort for a meager output, when I could buy the same amount of asparagus air-shipped from Argentina for $3.99 a bunch? Hmm... the arguments are starting to sound quite similar.

These are all variations of the same kinds of problem—just manifested in different ways. Waste is a byproduct of human development. It is a thought construct, made manifest in our lives via rubbish on the trash heap.

I can only hope that will we find ways to put these kinds of problems to better use. Otherwise, they'll be solved for us—and in ways we can neither anticipate or desire.


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