Business, Economics and Jobs

Designing a Green World

Sustainability is an environmental buzzword, but it doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with high-end product design. A new exhibition aims to change that. It’s a joint project of the Nature Conservancy – an environmental organization – and a New York design museum. Ten leading designers were matched up with Nature Conservancy projects around the world, and let loose with the local materials they found there.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this exhibition, called “Design for a Living World”, was some kind of vanity project. Top designers, gathered in New York’s Cooper-Hewitt, the design museum that’s part of the Smithsonian, plus, the hip, eco-cachet that comes from working with indigenous communities, strange materials, and a big green organization. But don’t be fooled, said Yves Behar.

"I think there’s plenty of design and/or vanity projects out there. And honestly, most of the, I think, designers that participate in this show don’t really need another one."

Behar is a hip designer if ever there was one. His work includes the low-cost “one laptop per child” project. For this commission, he went to an organic cacao cooperative in Costa Rica.

"One day, they were like, “We’re going to show you our farm, our cacao cooperative,” and I was like, “Great.” And I was expecting to see like a field with lined up plants and trees. But in fact it was much more like walking through the jungle, seeing the trees blended in with the rest of nature."

Chocolate is close to Behar’s heart – he’s Swiss. But he was disappointed to see how the cocoa is exported.

"The women in Costa Rica simply produce the cocoa bean and just ship it in big sack to Swiss chocolatiers – some of the best, actually -- and that’s it. There’s no understanding of the culture, there’s no understanding of where it comes from, there’s no connection between us, the people that consume the chocolate, and the people who made it."

Illuminating that connection is a driving rationale of the exhibition. Behar wanted to capture the way the Costa Ricans themselves use cacao. They form it into hard patties, shave bits off into hot water and mix it into a kind of pure cacao hot chocolate.

"I just wanted to replicate that experience. You know, keep it as pure and as simple as it was there."

"So he designed a sleek tool for shaving and stirring cacao. It looks, well, super hip – a slender cylinder of bright aluminum and dark, sustainably-grown wood, incorporating a grater and a small lip for hanging the whole thing off the edge of your mug. It’s packaged in a small burlap bag featuring a simple map of Costa Rica.

But here’s a thought -- let’s say Yves Behar’s design took off. And let’s say that hipsters the world over started holding Costa Rican cacao shaving parties, and demand for those Costa Rican cacao patties soared. When would that stop being sustainable? And who would have the right to stop the Costa Ricans from selling as much cacao as possible, the jungle be damned? Sanjayan – who goes by that name alone – is the Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist.

"What’s the end game? How do you allow people to aspire to live slightly better lives without exhausting the resources they need to survive? It isn’t easy at all. If you take anything and you just mass market it, obviously you’re going to have an impact on the resources. The way I would pose this question to you is, “Did we have to lose all 60 million of our free-ranging bison for the midwest to develop?” And probably the answer is no."

The Design for a Living World exhibition doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Sanjayan hopes that even though it can’t set out the entire design journey, from local source to inspiration to gift shop, it’ll be a mental prompt for designers, and consumers.

"200 years ago, if you asked someone, “Where does your table come from or your rug come from?” He would have been able to tell you the story of that. Today, look around your office, your kitchen. There’s nothing that you really own that you can actually tell what the story of that material really is. That’s what this exhibition really does."

And there is growing interest in products that have a story to tell. That’s part of what’s behind the movement towards local goods in the United States. But it’s not necessarily the top priority for consumers right now. It’s more likely to be prices. Exhibition curator Abbott Miller says the great unknown is whether many consumers will be prepared to pay more for sustainable design. Still, he adds that amongst United States designers at least, the debate is over.

"It’s not elective anymore to think about ecological issues and sustainable practices, it’s assumed. I think before it was sort of a sign of a kind of enlightenment or a kind of progressiveness. Now, it’s absolutely required."

Yves Behar thinks it’s his job to consider all parts of the puzzle.

"Design is really the glue between these issues of sustainability, of development, of the market, of the beauty and the function and the pleasure of basically having these products. Design can take into account all these criteria and create the right project for the right site, for the right people, for the right amount that they can manufacture."

So along with his hot chocolate device, Behar also designed other things, such as that low-impact packaging with its Costa Rican map logo. Whether or not that approach is standard practice, Behar and the other designers at the exhibition believe it is possible to create products at the right price for the market and the environment.

"Whether you’re in a down economy or in an up economy, that’s still what I would define as 'good design.'"

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

More "The World."

PRI's coverage of social entrepreneurship is supported by the Skoll Foundation.