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Hidden Histories:
the Story of Sustainable Design

(Released June 2009)

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  by Alison Knight  


Key Citations






Every product that enters our lives has what they call a 'hidden history' - an undocumented inventory of wasted or lost materials used in its production, transport, use, and disposal. (Paul Hawkens, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins1)

Many of us today are so far removed from the things we consume we don't know where they come from or who made or designed them. The concept of hidden histories requires us to think about the things we buy and ask questions like "How much energy was used to make this?" and "Where was it produced?" One person who decided to find out was economist Pietra Rivoli. After she was challenged by an anti-globalization protestor with the words "Who made your T-shirt?" she bought a shirt in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA and traced its hidden history to find that the cotton was grown in Texas, USA and then exported and made into a shirt in Shanghai in China by a woman earning a hundred dollars a month. It was then exported back to the high street shop in Florida where Rivoli bought it.2 Many of the products we buy have similar stories to tell. Edwin Datschefski reports that "most environmental problems are caused by unintentional side effects of the manufacture, use, and disposal of products. For example, according to one source, over 30 tonnes of waste are produced for every one tonne of product that reaches the consumer and then 98 percent of those products are thrown away within six months."3 If we knew the histories behind the products we buy perhaps we would put more consideration into our choices.

dumpster with shiny bags bulging out
But it doesn't have to be like that - we don't have to exploit people and natural resources just to produce a T-shirt or a car or a packet of breakfast cereal. Now the stories are starting to change and designers are among the people involved in that change. For too long design has been seen as part of the commercial process of making goods more attractive to consumers by adding decoration, luring them to make a purchase. However, John Thackara, director of Doors of Perception, clarifies the situation: "Although many people perceive design to be about appearances, design is not just about the way things look. Design is also about the way things are used; how they are committed to the world, and the way they are produced."4 Design is about function as well as form.

recycling symbol
The Recycling symbol
How is design changing? Well, just imagine yourself getting up tomorrow morning: having breakfast and getting ready for the day ahead, but it isn't a day like today, it is a day in a totally sustainable world. This is the scenario Datschefski presents in his book The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products. He begins by asking what a typical day would look like in a sustainable world and uses a storytelling technique to create a vision of the future hinting at what we might wear, eat and do. The future from his point of view is one of beauty, something we would like to aspire to and by accepting that life view we are moving towards the ethos of sustainable design.5 What does this involve? It is a radical new approach to design, a move from things to systems and services, designing for peoples' needs. It is a process that will redesign the way we will live in the future. This approach is still in its infancy. It has been a difficult birth, but an exciting one, a necessary one; this is the story of that birth.

Go To Three waves in sustainable design

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