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In Conversation With Katie Treggiden, on Craft, Design, And The Circular Economy

We are extremely proud to host the websites of some incredible changemakers on our carbon-neutral Wunderism servers. Among them is Katie Treggiden, a writer, journalist and speaker who focuses on the intersection of craft, design and sustainability, in particular the circular economy. Katie is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden. With her work covering so many of the touch points that we here at Leap hold dear, we wanted to get Katie’s take on design and sustainability and find out more about what graphic and web designers can learn from traditional craft. So, at the end of last year, Matt sat down for a zoom call with her (in true 2020 style) to ask her some questions.

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How is craft and traditional physical making leading the way for the rest of the design world?

The first thing I’d say is that craft and design are not as separate as you might imagine. There’s design in craft and there’s craft in design. But, David Pye’s definitions of the workmanship of risk versus the workmanship of certainty is a useful tool with which to understand some of the differences. In design and manufacturing, most of the risk happens before you start making. From that point onwards it’s the workmanship of certainty. Whereas in craft, you’re constantly making decisions all the way through the process, which is what Pye calls ‘the workmanship of risk’ (he never actually uses the word craft). That’s something that we could all learn from craft – the ability to constantly adapt and respond to changing environments and situations. 

Traditional craftsmanship has always been very embedded within natural systems – within the circular economy long before that’s what we called it. Craftspeople have a material literacy; often they specialise in a single material – think of a carpenter or a potter – so they have a deep understanding of their material, of where it comes from, how it can be changed, and where it goes. From a sustainability standpoint, that’s really important. They inherently have a respect for their material. If you work with one material for your entire career, you care about whether it’s going to run out. The first tenet of the circular economy is designing out waste – and craftspeople tend to be highly attuned to that.

The second tenet of the circular economy is keeping materials and objects in use and, again, if you know how to make things with your hands then you know how to repair them; you know how to take them apart and put them back together – something we could all benefit from learning.  

The final tenet of the circular economy is regenerating natural systems, and craftspeople are highly attuned to the processes they can put their materials through that will ensure they can go back into natural systems in a healthy way. They tend not to mess with their materials too much.

There are all sorts of aspects to ‘craftiness’ that are inherently linked to the circular economy. The whole designer-maker movement acts as a bridge across design and craft – certainty and risk – and mass production and industry could learn a lot from these kinds of connections.

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Can you share with us some of the best transferrable examples of sustainable design practice that you’ve discovered?

For my book, I interviewed 30 designers, makers and craftspeople working across different waste streams. I grouped them into domestic waste (the stuff you and I throw away every day), industrial or pre-consumer waste (the stuff that gets wasted in the manufacture of the products on their way to us), and then food, fashion and plastic. Those designers are working across furniture, product, home accessories and so on, but with really different material streams and outputs. There’s huge diversity in the book, but it was really interesting to see the themes that kept popping up. One theme that came up again and again was collaboration. You imagine the lone craftsman in a shed in the countryside somewhere – a sort of Bernard Leach figure – but nothing could be further from today’s makers. These guys are working with companies to understand their waste streams. Companies have to be transparent and open enough to share the problem – they have to let somebody in to see and understand that waste stream. So there’s a collaboration that happens there, between waste producers and these new designers who are using waste as a raw material.

A Craftsperson often starts by making something bespoke, one-off or handmade that’s only ever going to use up a small amount of waste, so you find them collaborating with scientists, engineer and technologists to work out how to scale their solutions so that they can start to take in bigger waste streams.

Collaboration is definitely something that we need to learn. The capitalist system is predicated on competition, and therefore any advances are proprietary and secret and hidden, and we don’t have time for that! We’ve got five or 10 years to address climate change. There needs to be more openness about the problems and the solutions; more sharing and more transparency.

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There’s also a sense of stubborn optimism – one of three mindsets that the authors of The Future We Choose believe to be critical in addressing climate change.  I love the idea not just of optimism, but of stubborn optimism. That’s something that all of the makers in this book have: no matter how many setbacks they encounter, no matter how many people tell them it can’t be done, they maintain that vision and that optimism. That’s really important in working towards a circular economy and addressing climate change.

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How do you see society breaking out of the take–make–waste model?

The take–make–waste model is the linear economy. We extract stuff from the earth, we make stuff out of it (usually on a mass scale), and then, after a relatively short period of time, we throw it away. The 20th century brought about this veneration of ‘newness’ – this idea of box-fresh trainers, unboxing videos on YouTube, and wearing your baseball cap with the gold sizing sticker still on it… the notion that something is perfect the moment that we buy it, but from that moment on it’s degrading, until the point at which we throw it away. Previous generations and other cultures (and a lot of the makers in this book) have a respect for the patina of age and the idea that things become more storied, interesting and valuable as they get bumped about, as they are passed through different owners. The circular economy demands that we keep objects in use – buying second-hand, passing things down through generations, mending things. We need a fundamental cultural shift away from that veneration of newness towards an appreciation for the patina of age.  

Part of the problem is the speed at which things rattle through the take–make–waste process, and that needs to slow down. We need to own things for longer and invest in them. That’s easy to say from a middle-class perspective; not everybody can afford to buy something good quality that’s going to last, and the biggest issue is that so much of the onus is put onto the consumer. ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’, right?  That’s all stuff that we’re supposed to do. But for every bag of rubbish I put out for the bin men, 70 bags of rubbish have been generated in the processes that made the things in that bag – agriculture, mining, manufacture… 70!  So pre-consumer waste is the bigger issue. 47% of the raw materials the fashion industry takes from the earth don’t even make it into the clothes that end up on our high streets. I’m all for personal agency; I think it’s really important to take responsibility for our own environmental impact, because in doing that we educate ourselves, becoming citizens and not consumers. But this is not just about us buying more environmentally friendly products or even about buying less – it’s about fundamentally changing systems.

A lot of environmental campaigning is based on shaming consumers and I don’t think that’s helpful. Partly because I don’t think shame drives action. We have to champion the people who are doing well and inspire people to act rather than shaming them into it. But more importantly, I don’t think consumers are left with a huge amount of choice. There’s this idea that consumerism is to blame, but consumers didn’t invent consumerism – businesses invented consumerism in order to sell us stuff! 

Let’s say that a 70:1 ratio of this issue lies with big businesses and governments and, if we’re really going to change from a linear to a circular economy (which we have to do because we don’t have an infinite amount of resources and this planet is running out of stuff) then making that transition will of course involve personal agency, but it’s also going to involve governmental intervention and big businesses changing. And they are starting to, so there is hope. 

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 In the world of digital, where resource use is often invisible to consumers and end users, what do you think designers need to be doing?

We have a traffic-light system for food that’s green for healthy, orange for moderate, and red is really bad for us. Couldn’t we have a similar traffic-light system for carbon footprints on everything we buy and use? Yes, there are a hundred different ways to calculate carbon footprint and there would be a big debate about which one we’re going to use and who would oversee it and how it would be checked and so on, but couldn’t we get to a system where every time you buy something it has a traffic light on it so that you know whether it’s green, orange or red in terms of its carbon impact? That way people could start to understand whether a paper back or a Kindle, a letter or an email, photographic prints or a server full of unlooked-at-photos, was the better option.  

At the moment we consume most of our media digitally. Most of the information that goes into my brain gets there via a screen. For most people it’s Instagram, it’s Facebook, it’s Netflix, and there’s an opportunity for digital designers to think about how we can use those channels to communicate this stuff better. David Attenborough is just blowing my mind at the moment  – he has joined Instagram; he’s making Netflix documentaries; he’s really using the digital space because he knows that he’s got a limited amount of time to get this message out to people and that this is the most effective way to do it. Part of this is to do with recognising our power. We’ve all been made to feel so helpless in the face of this massive crisis, so let’s find our power. For example, let’s look at where digital designers have power: they have power in creating the spaces through which most of us consume most of what we know and hold to be true. So there is a huge opportunity to use their skills to communicate that information more effectively, because that is what graphic design is really, isn’t it? Graphic design is not about making things pretty. It’s about communication. If you walk past a poster and the only thing that you take away from that is ‘Isn’t it beautifully designed?’ then that poster has utterly failed, because it was there to tell you something. There’s a huge opportunity for digital designers and graphic designers to claim that power, to say: ‘We create the channels for this information and this message, so how can we get it out there in a way that is informative and inspiring and that will motivate people to change?’ 

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You’ve been working in, studying and reporting on the creative industries for two decades now. How do you think our industry is doing in terms of change, education and leadership on the topic of sustainability?

When I started writing about purpose-driven craft and design, graduates were coming up with incredible projects, but they weren’t getting made. What’s changed since then is not those young people – they’re still coming out of university with amazing ideas and stubborn optimism and all of that stuff –  but now they’re being listened to, so when they take jobs in big companies, the big companies are now asking them ‘What can we do better?’  

That’s the real shift; the industry that these young, idealistic graduates are emerging into is now ready for them. People with resources and access to waste streams are starting to hold space for their ideas. You really start to see a shift when big companies are open to change.

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What’s the biggest change that you’d like to see?

Climate change is what they call a ‘wicked problem’ because it’s phenomenally complicated, interconnected and intersectional. No one thing is going to solve it; it needs lots of people finding what Seth Godin calls their smallest viable audience and bringing about their smallest meaningful change. If we all do that in our own little bit of the world and have as much impact as we can, then hopefully all of those things will come together.

But we’ve only got five–ten years to address climate change.  We’ve got so little time – and consumer action alone is not enough. I would love to see more thinking from governments and big business around, not just doing less harm, but actively embracing the third tenet of the circular economy and regenerating naturing systems. I would like to see more brands moving to a triple bottom line model and measuring success, not just based on profit, but taking into account people, planet and profit. Accreditations such as B Corp and initiatives such as 1% For The Planet provide really useful models for this sort of thinking. I would also like to see more equity – racism, sexism and environmentalism are absolutely intersectional and if we are going to really innovate, we need more diverse perspectives. As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K Wilkinson say in the introduction to their brilliant anthology of women’s writing on climate change All We Can Save, “to change everything, we need everyone.” 

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For your podcast Circular, you’ve interviewed leading figures across a range of sectors from campaigners and journalists to designers. What are the most positive points that you’ve taken away from those conversations?

I made a real effort to speak with a good mix of people. The podcast is about the circular economy and series one was specifically about waste  (series two will be about repair), so I specifically wanted to interview guests from every different angle on waste, from somebody who can get his monthly household waste into a jam jar, to Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, to designers and material experts. The final question that I asked all of them was how they felt about the future: ‘So you think we can nail this?’  All of them said ‘yes’.  It comes back to what we were saying about stubborn optimism. I took a cross section of nine people from every angle at which you could possibly look at waste, and all of them felt hopeful. In lots of different ways and for lots of different reasons, they all felt hopeful.

Learn more about Katie’s work at katietreggiden.com, and pick up a copy of Wasted at Bookshop.org

Katie’s website is hosted on our carbon-neutral Wunderism servers, which are powered entirely by renewable energy. Click here to find out about Wunderism and how we can host your website and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.