We’ll need more than sustainable packaging to address the climate crisis

Materials have played a central role in sustainable design for decades, but is their function overstated?
Multidimensional Sustainability
Lukas Abubeker
min read

We can continue with ‘design as usual’ if it’s ✨green✨ … right?

Mycelium cardboard. “Bio”-plastics. Algae-based inks. We’re developing myriad tech advancements and methodologies to help reduce the emissions and waste our industry produces. But I can’t help asking if we’re taking steps forward without thinking about the direction we’re heading.

I’m not saying these innovations aren’t worthwhile. They are, and we should continue making them. But for as much material progress I see, it seems there’s an inverse amount of cultural progress. Put another way, we’re pushing strategy aside and making a beeline toward execution. This is dangerous for a few reasons:

Economic growth dampers sustainable efforts

Regardless of sustainable materials or technology, reducing emissions is hard if GDP is growing. Higher GDP generally indicates more production and consumption, and within our current system, GDP always has to grow. This means that although we’re using more sustainable materials, their effects are quickly nullified by the increasing amount we use. Especially in a world where sharing is not encouraged. This is known as Jevons Paradox.

The recyclable materials we’re using aren’t being recycled

What happens to those materials in their next life stage? The pace of economic growth also nullifies the benefits of reuse. We’ll never recycle enough and it’s a challenge to even recycle correctly. A new study shows that, at most, 10% of all post-consumer plastic waste has been recycled since 1980; the rest ended up in landfills.

When resource use grows exponentially—again, because of exponential economic growth—recycling loses even more effect. Physical limits exist for one process (recycling) but not the other (economic growth*).

Innovations like biodegradable plastics come with big asterisks

While this is a big theoretical leap forward, it may realistically be a small step. The hype around this technology is that it’s compostable, but that’s only under particular conditions. Biodegradable plastic can’t biodegrade in the open air; often, it won’t even degrade in your home compost.

How you’re able to dispose of it depends on the labeling: ”industrial” or “home” compostable. The former means you need to send it off to be processed; if there is no specification, it likely needs to be processed industrially. The big catch is in many countries, the infrastructure necessary to treat these plastics doesn’t even exist yet, so much of it will end up incinerated or in a landfill, just like regular plastic.

Just from these examples, of which there are many more, we can see that focusing on how something is made—rather than why it needs to be made—nerfs the effectiveness of our industry in combating climate change. We end up throwing mountains of cash, time, and energy at a problem better solved if we took a step back and thought about the system as a whole. Changing only the materials we use while letting our industry continue as usual is almost as bad as changing nothing at all.

My optimistic side wants to think this short-sightedness is simply a result of us, as an industry, being uninformed. My pessimistic side feels much differently. Whatever the cause, if we want to be useful, we need to open our aperture.

*Mainstream economic theory claims there are no limits to economic growth, but many ecological economists have pointed out that unlimited growth (and, therefore, resource use) on a finite planet is impossible. The latter makes sense to me.

Our myopic view of the climate crisis

Despite their heavy focus, the climate crisis goes deeper than cutting CO2 emissions or using less plastic. But those issues are marketable and easily visualized, like recycling schemes and carbon footprints. They let society continue along the same general trajectory, and that’s one of the main benefits for the status quo.

So, what else is there if it’s not just about emissions and plastic? With a bit of digging, you can probably guess the big ones: plant and animal biodiversity, water scarcity, soil fertility, et cetera. Mandatory economic growth, as we’ve seen.

But just below the topsoil lay many intersecting issues that may at first glance seem unrelated: individualism, labor rights, attention, social separation, colonialism, commons enclosure, loneliness, the devaluing of indigenous knowledge, the dualist worldview, and more. These issues all tie into the climate crisis by driving different types of consumption, degradation, and waste. And they hint at a more deeply entrenched problem.

As a society, something that stops us from widening our field of vision and making progress on the climate crisis is a crisis of imagination. We’re told that it’s one particular, specific thing. That it depends on us, individually. That tech advancements will solve it. And we stop there. We don’t investigate further. We don’t connect the dots. The paradigm stays the same.

Our worldview needs to change, not just our pragmatic, energy-producing and waste-generating activities. The first route can be thoughtful and strategic, backed by research and long-term vision. The second lets us give in to the hype of easy technical solutions and avoid the hard work of self-reflection, understanding, and context-building.

The illusion of sustainable learning. Adapted from The Leader’s Handbook.

But it’s easy to get caught up. It happens all the time with technology. NFTs, AI, VR. Direct air carbon capture, “green” hydrogen, autonomous electric cars. What does the hype around these products exist for? Driving consumption and stock prices, mainly, but it also drives a narrative of systemic problems being fixed, at last, by some technical solution—a proprietary one, mind you.

However, discrete tech solutions are rarely up to the task of fixing system-level problems. Case in point: all of the tech that has made our job faster, easier, and more efficient has never given us back even a minute of personal time. That decision is reserved for the people in charge of the system (your boss—or you if you’re lucky).

My general hope with this newsletter is to help you avoid the hype cycle and see relationally. To fast track to a new mindset and substantive learning rather than stagnate in a slightly different version of the current system. To build a healthy social imagination that challenges power, challenges reality, and creates self-confidence, just like the imagination we exercise daily in our design work.

Opening our mental aperture

That previous line is why designers play a bigger role in climate action than we imagine. Every day, our work forces us to birth new ideas into the world. We’re trained to have the foresight to see the potential in ideas not fully formed. Ideas that make you look at the world sideways.

Because of that, and in contrast to the materials myopia, I would argue that our skills are well-suited to influence how climate stories are told, to help people see society differently, and to reimagine their relationship to nature (that is, to themselves). That’s what we need to affect. If not, the practical solutions will always follow the momentum of the current system.

That’s not to say we’re going to save the world. That’s already been tried with Design Thinking—at times with disastrous results, like when IDEO tried to improve the lives of Gainesville, NC residents by rebranding the city instead of helping the government solve tangible problems like affordable housing, food prices, and education. Design Thinking generally looks to simplify complex issues instead of appreciating and leaning into their complexity. As a result, it instinctually tried to squeeze all problems under the umbrella of design instead of using design as a tool within multidisciplinary teams to facilitate progress.

I want to end by restating that before we take any action, we should sit with the problem in a few different ways:

We need to unlearn the modernist simplification obsession of the last 75 years. In branding, this simplification often serves to create broad appeal, reduce costs, and increase sales. But society isn’t a corporation any more than corporations are people. In the 21st Century, the effect of this reductionism is a flattening of possibilities; what was once, debatably, a search for stability is now a compulsion that has caused our ideas to become increasingly fragile.

We need to learn about the problem intellectually; this is obvious but important nonetheless. You’ll never know everything about the climate crisis—there’s simply too much to know—but developing context is necessary. Understanding how the issues mentioned above interrelate and how we arrived at the present moment will make your storytelling much more nuanced. It might also make you incredibly upset, among other things. Which leads me to my last point.

We need to consciously feel how the crisis affects us emotionally. It’s common to feel conflicting emotions the deeper you look into the topic. Grief. Connection. Rage. Hope. These emotions are valuable, as is their incongruence. For one, to understand how the crisis affects us—something I think many of us repress. And two, to internalize the complexity of the problem. This embodiment helps create shared understanding rather than the cold individualization of strict reasoning.