Materials awareness

The capitalist model under which our society operates is geared towards overconsumption – buying too much, incremental design ‘improvements’, valuing low cost, convenience and novelty above all else.  Only about on per cent of all products produce remain in use six months after purchase.  The natural world can no longer underwrite the exponential increase in what we want to consume, and our social-cultural relations and self-esteem are defined by the powerful symbolic status-defining goods that we purchase.  Growth in consumption is by definition unsustainable.
Within further and higher education applied arts students are often the most visible consumers of materials:  the kilns, the forges, the very fact that students work with visible raw materials, which in many cases have a problematic provenance.  Not only does this make them visible and vulnerable to budget holders who are looking at making savings; but the students themselves, when they start to become aware of the problems involved in the acquisition of their raw materials, tend to become rather despondent.  Some become so despondent they consider not making anything at all and give up their course. We have lost several students to this malaise now.
One of the problems with this rather literal approach is that embodied energy tends not to be counted in the same way as obvious consumption of raw materials.  Students who work in screen-based media have neither the hardware nor the power consumed directly attributed to them – but with computer durables having to be replaced every (very) few years, this cost is not insubstantial. Carbon footprint indicators might be of use here but they are limited in that they show the scale of individual behaviour but not the social and environmental impact of materials, especially if those impacts are complicated.
In fact part of the problem is an overly simplistic linear style of thinking about any aspect of the sustainability problem.  Whenever anyone buys anything they stand at the tip of an iceberg connecting them to an invisible material chain or web.  If this web can be made visible, the full implications of any purchases can be understood and decisions made based on that understanding.  In fact if applied arts students look at this web it can often become apparent that their use of materials is far less problematic than the alternatives.
For example, those computer “durables” that screen-based students are using:  e-waste contains over a thousand different substances, many of which are toxic and which create serious pollution, particularly in Asia, despite takeback schemes and increased regulation. Students and budget holders alike are often completely unaware of the unfair occupational and environmental health threats that expose people (including many children) to hazardous poisons in developing countries because of policies surrounding disposal of e-waste.  This is of importance to applied arts students mostly by comparison to screen-based students; but if we take another example – that of plastics – the significance to applied arts is slightly more direct.  Plastic can be made into virtually anything and taken anywhere.  We eat and drink from it; cook and sit in it; play on it; pay with it – but its production, use and disposal cause ecological damage.   If we consider the alternatives – many of which could be made by applied arts students; if we look at the various materials and processes – both visible and invisible – involved in their manufacture, employment and disposal, it may very well be that materials used by applied arts students are superior in several aspects.  Reformulation of traditional cooking implements (as in the work of student Nathalie Vago) or indeed water collection (, by Potters for Peace) are not only ecologically but socially for more benign than plastic.
Other invisible aspects include scale (how many of a type of object are in the world and how fast they turn over), origin, components, resources (not just the raw materials themselves but the environmental and social consequences of their extraction), composition of materials and consequences for later recycling, size (meaning relative size of components versus relative potential harm – some of the smallest components contain the biggest potential toxic harm in mobile phones, for example), additives (hidden coatings, protective coverings, or chemical treatments), packaging, processing methods and costs, how much energy is consumed at each stage of  manufacture, distribution, and finally but importantly, the social-cultural aspect of objects and how they affect individual and community health and well-being.
Of course it’s not just a question of students evaluating materials and processes one against the other.  Once you accept – and it’s best to do this on an institutional level – that sustainability is not just a physical material concern but a cultural one at its root, it’s much more possible to find ways of looking at issues systemically.
Dryzek (2005) distinguishes different responses to environmental issues based on an axis model. There are two different dimensions by which environmental responses can be categorised: prosaic/imaginative and reformist/radical.  Prosaic responses involve action but without commitment to social or political change; imaginative responses try to rethink relationships between humans and the environment and build a different kind of society.  The reformist response involves slight adjustment to current systems, whereas the radical response involves wider and major change.
If we look at the current discourses surrounding the use and awareness of materials we can place these on the axis.  For example, the discourse of environmental problem solving seeks to reduce the impact of environmentally damaging materials by using them more efficiently.  This is a prosaic-reformist discourse that is gradually being adopted by industry. However, it is not fully implemented and neither is it a long-term solution, as with efficiency gains we see increased demand.  The discourse of survivalism, which examines limits to growth and calls for major changes to the system to allow it to continue into the future (but without challenging the consumerist basis of society), is prosaic-radical.  What we might call the sustainability discourse cultivates an attitude of enquiry in which students are encouraged to consider alternatives to systems of material flows and wastes at a systemic level.  We could call this discourse imaginative–reformist; whereas a discourse of green radicalism in which we re-envisage wasteful human-centric norms and promote instead earth-centred customs of reality and value could be labelled imaginative-radical.
What we are looking at when we apply this kind of model to the thinking that takes place around materials is that students, teachers, and budget holders move beyond reacting and adapting.  When they can see that responses in the earlier orders are indeed not enough, but that neither is giving up, an entire paradigm shift towards transformative actions takes place.  Once students have taken on board the imaginative-reformist view they can come up with solutions that minimise the ecological impact of materials.

Dryzek, J.  (2005) The Politics of the Earth: environmental discourses. Oxford University press