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Designers helped get us into the climate crisis. Can they help get us out?

Design only matters if it can influence our ideals about what’s desirable.

Designers helped get us into the climate crisis. Can they help get us out?
[Source photo: iStock/Getty Images Plus]

A while back, I saw a tweet from the global design consultancy Ideo touting the sustainability work it had been doing for H&M. I’m still a sucker for Ideo stories—the halo effect from the years I spent admiring their work. The project in question was new packaging, which had won awards from D&AD and my old employer, Fast Company.

On D&AD’s site, there was a video of earnest-looking young innovators with Sharpies in hand, surrounded by glass walls adorned in scales of Post-It notes. And what did those teams—“from branding, production, and logistics, all designing shoulder to shoulder”—come up with? A paper shipping envelope, with a blank label that can be printed with the logos of H&M’s various brands, such as COS and Weekday. All told, one hundred million had shipped in 2022, thus avoiding 2,000 tons of single-use plastic. Impressive stats to be sure. But also, total bullshit.

I noticed how the video on D&AD’s website had purposefully avoided calling H&M what it is: a fast-fashion behemoth. To win an award about sustainability, you can’t mention that Zara, H&M, and Forever 21, and now new brands like Shein, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova, only work if we buy more clothes than we need, simply because the prices are too low to ignore and the styles change every time we turn around.

The strenuously art-directed Instagram ads we see are meant to make us ignore that the fashion industry is one of the world’s greatest environmental blights, accounting for about 10% of carbon emissions and 20% of global wastewater.

The climate crisis might never have gotten so bad without fast fashion. Today, people in the United States buy a new piece of clothing every five days, and we throw away two out of every three things we buy. The volume of what we throw away has doubled in the last 20 years, which you might remember is about when Zara and Forever 21 started appearing at your local mall. In 2021, outside of Accra, the capital of Ghana, a mountain of thrown-away clothes was emitting so much methane that it exploded, then smoldered for months.

No amount of paper packaging is going to change that. The lie goes too deep. Designers have been telling themselves the lie for so long that they don’t notice it anymore: The lie that “new” means “better” and “newest” means “best.”

Climate change has come for us, driven by a culture that views consumption as the key to happiness and a better life. Yet now, what was once seen as a necessary innovation—improving people’s lives through better design, and in so doing, improving the broader economy—has curdled into a consumer instinct that pushes us to buy more and more, for reasons we can’t always articulate. The line between things that we buy because we need them and things we buy because we’re taught to need them has nearly disappeared.

We’ve known this since the 1960s, when Ken Garland wrote the “First Things First” manifesto, calling for designers to rethink their role in stoking consumerism. We heard it again more recently in Ruben Pater’s book CAPS LOCK (2021), which dissects the link between capitalism and graphic design. We ignore their insights at our peril, and I suspect it’s because we can’t imagine how life could be any other way. But things can be different; in fact, they were.


Today’s mores around consumption began in the Great Depression, and designers played a critical role in creating them. The Great Depression dragged on for so long partly because our understanding of macroeconomics wasn’t great. But by the late 1930s, we did grasp a fundamental truth: The economy has always been a confidence game. It’s always been about how people feel—what John Maynard Keynes would in 1936 call the “animal spirits” guiding our decisions. If people feel good, they buy things, and that behavior, tallied up across millions of people, creates greater demand. Greater demand means more jobs and higher pay. Which means being able to heat your home and feed your kids.

But in the 1930s, in an era of bank runs and mass homelessness, how could you make people feel good enough that they’d actually want to go out and buy new things they didn’t feel like they could afford? You can imagine the sheer relief people would have felt upon hearing someone who seemed to have an answer. And the answer, proposed by various economists and business leaders, was simple. They called it “consumption engineering,” which meant creating products in such a way that people felt like they had to have them.

A new breed of design professional sprang up in the 1940s to serve that need. Many of them, like Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague, were former advertising creatives who now had the chance to actually invent the stuff they’d been trying to sell on behalf of clients they resented. During an era in which few consumer products had been “designed” by any kind of professional, the new generation of industrial designers remade almost anything they could: washing machines that were easier to clean than ever before; mason jars that were curved so that you could scrape every last bit of food from them; flyswatters with a target on them that made it fun to kill flies.

The modern design profession started with consumption engineering, which was the idea that you could stoke demand through ingenuity. To do so, in fact, was seen as a moral calling for designers in the 1940s, because the Great Depression had taught that generation about the immense suffering that happened when demand sank to a low tide. But consumption engineering was also the origin of a sin that still sits at the heart of our lives today.

People knew about this dynamic in the 1930s, but they thought planned obsolescence was a good thing. Light bulbs and household appliances were designed not to last past a certain point, so that people had to go out and buy more of them, keeping more people employed. If that sounds outrageous, you’re not looking hard enough. Planned obsolescence still rules our lives. It animates every Instagram ad you get for some ingenious but inconsequential tchotchke; the shoddy quality of every Shein or Zara outfit that falls apart after a couple of wearings; and the Ikea furniture you buy that ends up at the curb within a year, wearing a sad handwritten note saying, “FREE.”

Even if your new iPhone isn’t expressly designed to break every year, the marketing of that iPhone is meant to convince you that your serviceable older model may as well be broken. Who doesn’t want those five extra megapixels in the camera, or that supercharged chip that makes it so innovative, nothing that great has ever existed before? A constant barrage of marketing has made us addicted to what’s next, chasing the fleeting high of a new purchase that wears off all too quickly.


If any of this sounds like you, please know that none of this is an accusation. This is how I live too, and I hate it. I buy a new phone more often than I need to, just because. I buy stuff that ends up on the sidewalk far sooner than I promised myself it would. I buy clothes that I end up not wearing. I’m the child of boomers who believe that consumption makes the world go round. Maybe they ruined the world. So did we all. Every new thing you and I buy requires untraceably vast amounts of carbon emissions to produce, and speeds us toward thousand-year droughts and heat waves that happen all the time, unquenchable wildfires, and rising seas.

The answer to all this isn’t to become a bearded hermit who grows their own food in soil fertilized by their own doo-doo. The point is: We don’t yet know what the answer will be, but we also don’t have time to wait.

In June 2022, the UN’s climate science agency published a call to consider cutting consumer demand, which is a core premise of degrowth, a new movement based on the seemingly obvious idea that a planet with finite resources cannot sustain ever-increasing consumption. This was shocking, because even just a couple of years ago, degrowth was seen as a fringe idea limited to protest signs at liberal-arts schools. That has changed due to the efforts of organizations such as the Sunrise Movement and activists such as Greta Thunberg, who have had remarkable success in creating the political will to combat climate change.

Reuters notes, “As climate change accelerates and supply chain disruptions offer rich-world consumers an unaccustomed taste of scarcity, the theory is becoming less taboo and some have started to ponder what a degrowth world might look like.” As to what it might look like, the World Economic Forum muses that degrowth “might mean people in rich countries changing their diets, living in smaller houses and driving and traveling less.” In other words, degrowth means changing both our behaviors and our expectations. Services such as mobility sharing, and lifestyle choices such as traveling less or living without a car, will have to become mainstream around the world.

We’re not going to create change on that scale by telling people what they should be doing and hoping for the best. People don’t like eating their broccoli. People especially don’t like being told what they can’t do. For large-scale behavior change to happen, people have to want those changes. That is where design must play a role.

Designers tend to think about design as a process of creating artifacts: posters, apps, chairs, logos, furniture, gadgets. That’s true enough, but it’s more than that. Design is the transmission of culture and values. It’s a vessel by which we speak to other people without words, and the way in which we try to get them to appreciate some better version of the world through something we make. The emergence of our profession in the 1930s can be our guide. Just as designers of that era thought of themselves as inventing a new culture of consumer demand, the designers of the coming era need to think of themselves as inventing a new way of living that doesn’t privilege consumption as the only expression of cultural value. At the very least, we need to start framing consumption differently.

Design only matters if it can influence our ideals about what’s desirable—the futures we want. As designers, we need to be engaging our imaginations on a greater scale. Instead of imagining how to make a better widget, we should be dreaming about remaking our willfully ignorant acceptance of consumer culture. But to do that, we must reckon with the assumptions built into the work we do. Today, how many of us work at building up recognition for brands that make disposable crap? How many of us work at building equity for companies who’ve never had to pay for the damage they’ve done to society? I’m thinking of the millions minted by the branding company behind BP’s bullshit greenwashing, or the millions more minted by the product designers who rethought H&M’s plastic packaging and then proudly touted H&M’s commitment to being green.

[Photo: courtesy PA Press]

Designers have to show us a better way. What might a fashion brand built on the values of repair and reuse look like? Or a consumer electronics brand built on the notion of making your phone last as long as possible? There are economists who think that degrowth is a ridiculous idea, and that the only way to ensure social cohesion is through doubling down on late-stage capitalism. But why do we accept that this is the only possible world we can make? Why do we accept that greater consumption is the only path toward greater happiness? Consumer culture had to be invented; designers helped invent it. If that’s the case, then we can invent something better. We don’t have a choice. As designers, we don’t have to wait.

This essay is an excerpt from What It Means to Be a Designer Today by Liz Stinson and Jarrett Fuller. Copyright © 2024 by AIGA. Reprinted by permission of PA Press, an imprint of Chronicle Books.


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