Frank Noirot

Let's move beyond pre-industrial solutions for eco-friendly design

There is a habit I have, that I've seen in other designers and thinkers interested in finding ecologically-acceptable solutions to problems, which I want to call out as insufficient.

It is clear that most industrially-designed processes and materials are ecologically abhorrent, and most "eco-friendly" design work at corporations is fundamentally limited, because it cannot question the scale and distribution at which design and manufacture happens.

So radical designers often reach deep into history, before advent of industrialism, for truly ecological design solutions. While these are valuable and necessary for liberatory education, they offer only starting points to truly replacing industrialism. If we are to replace industrialism as the dominant culture, we need medium-skill, medium-scale design solutions that are ecologically neutral.

the convenience of pre-industrial solutions #

A common example of this tendency is dying clothing. All DIY, eco-friendly solutions I have seen for this problem have been pre-industrial in nature, almost always consisting of food scraps and other foraged materials. Never have I seen a solution that required a bit of chemistry or material science know-how to understand, a solution that could dye the clothes for a city block, or any solutions that boasted the ability to dye every major color on a small scale. All of them have been for single manufacturers working in their own home to dye a few pieces of their own clothes.

This tendency to reach into the pre-industrial era for answers is convenient in multiple ways. First is materially, it is nearly a given that most pre-industrial design solutions will be non-toxic or at least far less ecologically harmful. Most of the toxic materials that we associate with modern design and engineering were not available until mining and chemistry were far more advanced, so many folk design solutions are by their nature ecologically neutral. We seem to get the hard part of ecological design for free.

Second is practical convenience. Pre-industrial solutions to design problems tend to be very DIY-friendly. Harmful industries like fashion are kept in power by convincing the public that making their goods (or providing their services) is hard and expensive to do yourself, and also require teams of experts to get right. Sharing low-skill solutions to design problems is liberatory: this is the promise of DIY education. And pre-industrial solutions tend to align well with this spirit, made even more accessible with the addition of modern conveniences like a stove to boil water in the example of dying clothing.

Finally, it is mythologically convenient. It is pleasant to reach into the distant past and recover lost wisdom, to wield it against industrialism's tendency to wrap up all knowledge in the black box. This is what is so rewarding about learning that avocado skins can dye cloth a salmon color. We feel like we've reclaimed a skill from the fashion industry. We feel like we've undone some of the senseless knowledge compression that happens under market pressures. Sometimes we feel we are even decolonizing knowledge, recognizing the brilliance of these ancient and often indigenous works of genius, recognizing and spotlighting them and rebuking the system that discarded them like Richard Bulliet in The Camel and the Wheel.

the dangers of DIY #

These design solutions that reach into the deep past are valuable and need to be shared. However, DIY is a middle class hobby. It may be cathartic, but on its own it is not liberatory. I'll say it more generally so I remember it: knowledge is not liberatory until it is shared and collaborated on. I am guilty of hoarding creative knowledge, and it is useless in my head. We need solutions that are ecologically-stable, cater to the strengths of medium-scale collaborative production, and that provide reasonably similar results as today's industrial solutions (our need to let go of some modern conveniences notwithstanding).

Precious Plastic has done an excellent job of this. Their first machine designs focused on DIY-scale plastic recycling preparation, then DIY-scale plastic reuse, and now has been focusing on machines that support medium-scale operations that encourage small teams to specialize and run the larger machines together in a coordinated effort.

This is Do It Ourselves design: solutions that expect some degree of specialization and scale, but still arrive at modern quality by prioritizing ecologically and societally sustainable processes over scale or price. Pre-industrial, DIY-flavored solutions represent the easier kind of design education; showing people that dying clothes isn't so complicated, and can actually be done with food scraps in a pinch. It is an excellent introduction to reclaiming production, but it cannot be the last.

retracing industrial science's history to find its future #

There are hundreds (or thousands) of years of learning between these solutions and the harmful ones that we operate with today. If we are to, for example, replace H&M and Shein's harmful clothing dying practices with eco- and society-friendly medium-scale versions, we will have to learn from the recent hundred years of dying science.

In nearly every technology, we began our development of it with an Earth-friendly scale and process. We chased improvements to it—brightening the colors, broadening our color range, improving their resiliency—without regard to ecology. Somewhere in the thousands of experiments to improve the presence of salmon colors in clothing dyes a value judgment was made to move away from natural materials and processes like avocado skins to harmful, usually fossil fuel-driven ones. It is the duty of modern eco-minded designers to retrace that scientific lineage and remake those value judgments with our new modern understanding of ecological and societal systems, and follow the science where it was left off.

Somewhere in that development of salmon-colored dyes was a process that worked well at a medium production scale that was scrapped because it didn't work at large scales. There was a material that required just a bit of chemistry knowledge to handle safely. There was a material that broke down in the environment with little or no post-processing that was abandoned because it wasn't cost effective for a global operation. These are the misjudgments that we must search scientific history for, the discoveries deemed valueless to a society that didn't take the environment or human wellbeing into consideration.

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