Sustainability seems like a lofty goal for many but the needle of change can be moved via collaborative consumption. Kristine Harper explains the rationale behind the title of her latest design book, Anti-trend and how slow, unrushed living leads to “anti-trendy decisions”. The sustainable designer of the future can also be nurtured by unlearning some of the conducts that have been linked to product design for decades. Harper puts her theory into practice by setting up a sustainable weaving collaboration with a group of craftswomen in Bali, where she is currently based.
The title of your latest book is bold: “anti-trend”. We live in a world where identity and aspirations are expressed via the objects we consume. ‘Trend’ is very much integral in supporting this habitus – our social mobility so to speak. We are judged by our ability in keeping up with trends – or even the reverse of that, that is the ability to spot trends and opt out of them (‘reverse snobbery’). What made you arrive to this title?
The title Anti-trend was initially just a working title that I had had in mind for years. Anti-ing trends had been a desire of mine for a long while, as I view consumer trends as having much of the blame for the mountains of discarded things that end up in landfills worldwide after a short while of usage.
When I started writing the book using anti-trend as a working title I was however concerned that it might hold too many fashion-connotations to carry the entire project, but it turned out to be an apt descriptor during the whole process of book-writing. Trends are interlinked with the ever-changing status-symbols and norms that are intertwined with consumerism. Anti-trends are the antitheses.
The longing for trendy, alluring products, is one of the chief offenders to combat when it comes to reduction of consumption in the name of sustainable development. The other one is habits; our routines that keep us stuck in a pattern of over-consumption and make us reluctant to change, even if the change is meaningful and beneficial for us and our community. An alternative is needed.
“An anti-trendy way of life is closely connected to slow living, since slowing down… often leads to anti-trendy decisions and an anti-trendy lifestyle.”
We are in need of more anti-trendy, resilient product solutions that include a larger degree of user-flexibility, and of objects that are designed to be open to change. In order to alter our cultural and societal norms, more sustainably innovative product solutions are compulsory. In order for the supply or creation of sustainable design solutions that encourage resilient living to raise, the demand for resilient, sustainable products must increase, and vice versa. The creation of sustainable solutions and the need are interlinked. One cannot look at one side of this equation without looking at the other one as well. And I discuss both approaches thoroughly in Anti-trend.
Anti-trend is not the same as counter-trend or an intended opposition to predominant tendencies; it is connected to the rhythms of life that are always the same, or that are at least long lasting. An anti-trendy lifestyle is a genuinely satisfying way of being in the world. It may have many different expressions, but it is characterised by authenticity and meaningfulness. Typically, an anti-trendy way of life is closely connected to slow living, since slowing down and forcing oneself to notice one’s true desires often leads to anti-trendy decisions and an anti-trendy lifestyle.
At design schools, students are taught to incorporate obsolescence in their products to keep that cycle of consumption going. Design is very much tied with consumerism. That idea is ingrained at design school level. In turn, a lot of things we learned at media school and even anthropology are geared towards consumerism – because that is where the jobs are, we were told. How do you see your book fit into the new syllabus of design – or material culture?
To be honest, I really don’t hope that’s true. Planned obsolescence, whether that being functional obsolescence or perceived, trend-based obsolescence, is vital to overcome in order to turn around the immense environmental problems we are currently facing worldwide. Design in the 21st century should not be interlinked with consumerism, but rather with sustainable solutions: it should be focused on supporting a good, resilient, fulfilling human life. A life that is justifiable and worth sustaining.
In other words, the present and the future role of the sustainable designer contains an array of opportunities, but it also involves unlearning some of the conducts that have been linked to product-design for decades. We must unlearn:
1. that products must appeal to the consumer by offering tempting newness or by being created with a trend based “logic” in mind (aka, a trend is always short-lived and will be met with a counter-trend that will dictate the opposite look or lifestyle as the previous trend); and
2., that the creation of design-objects involves incorporating planned obsolescence into products in order to ensure frequent replacement, and that designers should make use of business models that favour overproduction and buy-and-throw-away-mentalities over longevity. The future role of the sustainable designer involves reclaiming the importance of an in- depth design-process: designing objects that are aesthetically resilient, empowering, ecologically innovative, and that encourage sustainable behaviour and sustainable lifestyles.
“The future jobs for designers – and other creative academics for that matter – should not be interlinked with old-fashioned consumption of products made to be perceived as obsolete after a short while of usage.”
The future jobs for designers – and other creative academics for that matter – should not be interlinked with old-fashioned consumption of products made to be perceived as obsolete after a short while of usage; there is nothing ground-breaking, satisfying or noble about encouraging fast-pace consumption of things that are made from virgin materials that can last for more or less ever.
In Anti-trend I operate with three legitimations for designing new objects in a world overflowing with unwanted things. In short, these three legitimisations are:
1. designing objects entirely out of waste materials, or to upcycle old, discarded objects,
2. sustaining traditional crafts in order to prevent them for dying out, as well as to empower artisans.
And 3. encouraging sustainable living: This legitimisation for designing new objects in a world overflowing with discarded things is the most abstract one, but basically involves providing consumers with sustainable options and solutions; solutions that are available to all – not just to the fortunate few – and solutions that inspire us to consume less, share more, and pursue a more fulfilling, resilient lifestyle. I state the latter because over-consumption and greediness in my perspective often occur out of dissatisfaction and the unfortunate “logic” that prosperity equals financial growth and a constant increase in material properties. We need objects that can satisfy our inherent need for beauty and aesthetic nourishment—in a sustainable manner.
Design-students should challenge traditional consumption. Perhaps by encouraging collaborative consumption; “opening up” products so that they can be used by a community of users, or perhaps by democratising sustainability.
The cornerstone of long-term investments and the sharing economy can jeopardise the use-and-throw-away ethos is a perspectival change. Rather than endless growth, the focus needs to shift to human – and ecological – wellbeing.
Tell us more about sustainable storytelling.
When I first started writing Anti-trend I actually considered the title Sustainable Storytelling for the book, as I find it extremely important to work on the stories we tell and are told in relation to sustainability. Stories on sustainability should be characterised by transparency and by relevance. However, within communication about sustainability and environmental issues there are manifold alienating terms such as biodiversity, natural resources, ecosystem, permaculture, and environment.
Terms like these are so abstract, conceptual, and nonfigurative that they mean nothing to the majority of people. They create no internal images, or if they do, they are likely diffuse, diluted, and non-expressive. In order to make people want to act – to get out of their easy chairs and change their convenient habits in the name of environmental issues – communication on sustainability must be more engaging, vivid, and personal. Pictures must be created in the minds of the audience; emotions must be awoken; we must feel the consequences of our current consumerism and use-and-throw-away-mentality rather than rationally understand it. Companies and organisations need to talk more about values and beliefs and less about facts in order to encourage sustainable change. In other words: more pathos and less logos!
“Sustainable storytelling must be personal, applicable, empowering, and passion driven. Rather than rattling off discouraging facts about the state of the world, stories about solutions and alternative ways of life that can benefit nature and empower workers are needed.”
Sustainable storytelling must be personal, applicable, empowering, and passion driven. Rather than rattling off discouraging facts about the state of the world, stories about solutions and alternative ways of life that can benefit nature and empower workers are needed. We need stories packed with the tangible consequences of our current consumer ventures rather than fact-driven doomsday descriptions.
We need stories about the people that create the products we mindlessly buy that can create transparency. We need presence rather than distance. Distance leads to detachment, detachment leads to indifference, and indifference leads to irrational consumption. It is so easy to forget about the underpaid workers in the sweatshop in Bangladesh when you enjoy your cheap, trendy new dress – harvesting approving gazes from peers and feeling fashionable and fresh, without having spent very much money. Establishing a link between the underpaid worker and the feel-good dress as a part of the consumer-situation is next to impossible. However, we need to be reminded of that link, and amazing initiatives like Fashion Revolution do exactly that.
You chose Bali as your current fieldwork – where we’d met a few years ago – and the textile woven by a community of women as your object of study. What sort of social or emotional life do you see in that textile? What can we learn from it?
Yes, at the moment I am engaged in building up a sustainable weaving collaboration focused on the preservation of endangered crafts traditions and women’s empowerment with my friend Putu. The collaboration is called Alamanda and it is located in the village Sudaji in the mountainous Sawan district in the Buleleng region in North Bali. The talented craftswomen with whom we work are masters at endek (ikat) weaving as well as the complicated art of songket (double ikat weaving), which is a weaving technique that results in highly detailed textiles with the same beautiful pattern on each side. There are only a small handful of weavers in the entire Buleleng region who master the art of songket weaving, which makes the technique endangered and prone to extinction.
Many crafts traditions are endangered worldwide. They are taught throughout generations – from hand to hand. They are characterised by non-verbal transmission. And, if the livelihood of artisans is threatened – as it is today due to the overproduction of mass-produced goods that handmade products cannot compete with in terms of price – young generations will seek other kinds of employment (in Bali, typically in tourism – which however, at the moment due to the pandemic is much less lucrative than usually).
We live in a world in which crafts are rarely appreciated. Why pay more for a handmade piece of clothing, a crafted piece of furniture, or a ceramic bowl that carries traces of the creation-process, if you can buy a mass-produced object that resembles such pieces and in addition costs a fraction of the price?
However, the aesthetic nourishment that a well-crafted object made by the hands of a skilled artisan contains is of great importance to our human well-being. Not least in an era in which we are increasingly deprived of hands-on, offline activities and experiences. The beauty of a beautifully handmade object, whether this being a bedspread, a chair or a vase, increases our daily wellbeing by offering us the pleasure of continuously using an aesthetically pleasing object as well as the pleasure of experiencing such an object embracing traces of usage in a flattering way. This kind of human wellbeing furthermore increases our ability to live sustainably, as it decreases our need for new things and hence makes it easier for us to reduce our consumption.
“In order to sustain crafts traditions, one must create and maintain a counter pole to mass-produced goods by emphasising what is unique about crafts products: unevenness, ingenuousness, rawness, and texture.”
When I work with sustaining and preserving the weaving techniques and traditional patterns in northern Bali, my hypothesis is that in order to sustain crafts traditions, one must create and maintain a counter pole to mass-produced goods by emphasising what is unique about crafts products: unevenness, ingenuousness, rawness, and texture. This can be done in multiple ways: one can focus on the hands and the artisans behind the products and thereby establish a closeness between the creator and the receiver – as previously described – or one can focus on the fulfilling aesthetic nourishment that crafted products bring the receiver or on the aesthetically nourishing sense-experience that crafted objects can cause. The sensory bombardment that thoroughly crafted imperfections and textural unevenness can cause, cannot be replicated in mass-produced, machine-made products.
So, in case of the Northern Bali weavers, the process of sustaining their exquisitely crafted products involves allowing more roughness, more texture, and more surface-variation to enter the expression, eliminating the smoothness and the flawlessness by encouraging the individual artisan to leave a mark, literally speaking – I have even considered asking each of the weavers to create a signature or tag to apply to each piece created.
Textiles like the ones made by the Alamanda weavers are charged with time, so to speak: first of all the creation process is immensely slow (it takes four to five weeks for a skilled weaver to create one songket / double ikat shawl), and the slowness seems to linger in the textile surface; you can literally see it, feel it, sense it; all the time and thoroughness that had been added to it in the creation phase makes the object experience very special: when you touch and use the textiles you can immediately feel that it is something unique, something that has taken hours and hours and lots of skill to create, and something that carries stories; stories of the weaving technique and the traditional patterns and stories of the creator or the hands behind the product.
“Wear-and-tear leads to imperfections that might make an object more tactilely stimulating and, simply, more beautiful.”
In my book Aesthetic Sustainability I write about different kinds of time that can be charged to an object, and that adds to its value. One of these is “the time of becoming”, which concerns the time of creation and is a way of creating a durable bond between the object and the recipient or user. The traces of the time of becoming can add multiple layers of complexity to the object, helping to ensure that the recipient will not “finish” with it after a short period of time, but will rather become fascinated by it and want to return to it over and over. Another time category that I discuss in Aesthetic Sustainability is “the time of existence”. This category is also relevant in relation to the value of the handwoven textiles made by the Alamanda weavers. It involves embracing the traces of wear and usage, as decay can be aesthetic; wear-and-tear leads to imperfections that might make an object more tactilely stimulating and, simply, more beautiful. This applies to the handwoven Alamanda textiles, as wear and weathering doesn’t jeopardise their aesthetic nourishment; on the contrary, it seems that they assume their character with usage; they become softer, more tactilely nourishing and furthermore, carriers of the stories of usage. The time of existence, just as the time of becoming, can establish a lasting bond between subject and object by adding to the durability of the object.
This is a quote from Aesthetic Sustainability, Chapter 4 “Designing the Temporal Object”:
“Designing objects with temporality in mind can be a way of creating an emotional bond between an object and the recipient or user; it can also be a way of creating the potential for durability and aesthetic sustainability. As an object becomes a container of time–and thus physical, material, or concrete stories–it is charged with emotional and tactile value, making it more than just a thing. In a sense, the object is transformed into a qualifying capsule that has the ability to precipitate a momentary travel in time, opening up corridors to lead the subject back to, or into, hidden or forgotten sensations, bodily memories and feelings.”
The challenge faced by small businesses that aspire to be sustainable is that the supply chain they depend on cannot be 100% sustainable. Or that sustainability is the more expensive path to take. An example: we’d like to publish our publications using recycled paper but paper recycling itself, in the supply chain, is expensive. This is the reality in the West, and especially in Asia, where some of the suppliers are. And that’s excluding the social issues tied with ‘cheap’ supply chain, such as modern slavery. Of course, you have seen some shifts in thinking, if not in action. Where do you think we are at right now, and when do you think we will achieve 100% sustainability?
Yes, I agree. It’s a dilemma. However, I think unfortunately the fact that one might not be able to be 100% sustainable tends to be an excuse for not doing anything at all. Let’s encourage even the smallest step towards a more sustainable future: rather do something than nothing! A small company can work with sustainability in a multitude of ways: we tend to think of sustainability as only concerning sustainable materials and certifications, but sustainability is about many other things as well, for example about social responsibility or about encouraging reduction of consumption or only buying what we need.
“In general I think sustainability should be viewed as a matter of justifiability: can we justify the way we are doing things?”
In general I think sustainability should be viewed as a matter of justifiability: can we justify the way we are doing things – both in relation to material usage, human conditions and environmental impact? And, if not, how can we, through storytelling, explain the steps needed to our customers?
As mentioned earlier, storytelling on sustainability is immensely important: sustainability must feel relevant and there must be great transparency. For example, when I work with the weavers in North Bali, I have had customers from Europe and America questioning the prices – which I suppose are quite high. But once I explain the time and the skill it takes to create just one songket shawl there is a great understanding for the price asked (which cannot be any lower). This is an example of the beauty of communication and transparency. Never underestimate your customers.
Perhaps for small companies making a specific sustainable approach their speciality or focus is a way to move forward. This could be anything from upcycling and zero waste or minimal usage of materials to social responsibility measures and involvement in sharing concepts.
Do you think the Covid-19 pandemic will finally shift our opinion on design objects and sustainability?
Well, we could hope that because the pandemic has forced us all to slow down, and perhaps reconsider our lifestyle choices and implement some sustainable changes, an altered view on consumption is the consequence. Unfortunately though, online shopping of fast fashion products and other knick-knacks has gone through the roof during the pandemic! Shopping is still considered entertainment by many, and due to the fact that it is so affordable to fill your online basket with insignificant stuffs it is even very affordable entertainment. The convenience, affordability and ease of online shopping is a ticking unsustainable bomb.
So actually, I think the pandemic has made things worse.
“Shopping is still considered entertainment by many… it is so affordable to fill your online basket with insignificant stuffs.”
The online consumerism of everything from toys and clothes to television streaming seems to have exploded as a result of people staying at home. We need offline activities in order to live more sustainably. Expanded online existence removes us even further from nature, local communities and human interaction than we already were before the pandemic. We are physically distanced from being able to see the consequences of our, now online, consumerism, and this distance increases unsustainable behaviour. The transparency needed is nearly completely removed.
What can truly encourage us to live more sustainably is, in my experience, decreased convenience (who needs to be able to order next to anything and have it delivered the day after?), increased (fair!) prices, and a closer connection to nature.
On the bright side, the pandemic and the accompanying increased detachment from materiality seems to have given birth to a “hands-on” tendency based on a growing need for off-lineness, which materialises in a rising need for everything from knitting and embroidery to gardening and cooking. So, my hope is that a movement of menders, creators and repair-enthusiasts will grow. And, in relation to the previous question about what small sustainable companies can do: Why not nurture this anti-trend?
What book did you last read?
I just started reading a book on Ayurveda.
Print, PDF or e-book?
About Kristine Harper
- Anti-trend: Resilient Design and the Art of Sustainable Living (ORO Editions)
- Aesthetic Sustainability: Product Design and Sustainable Usage (Routledge)
- Blog: The Immaterialist
- Instagram: The Immaterialist