When is a salad bowl an ecological statement?

In the IDSA Innovations magazine there's a story by Scott Henderson describing his salad bowl and forks. It's a gorgeous product and a wonderful design, but Henderson devotes a full paragraph describing why it's ecologically sensitive because it's expensive. I find that pretty ridiculous, and it raises all kinds of questions for me, but rather than rant about it, as I'd like to, I'll just reprint it in its entirety:

When designers try to defend their work from an ecological standpoint, they are often forced to search for some spin about the product's material being recyclable. Hence, "the Ensalada is primarily constructed from glass, a natural material that is recyclable and regarded by many as a manufactured material, the use of which is critical to human health and safety because of its ecological properties."

All true actually, but the real reason the Ensalada is an environmentally sound product has its basis in something far less scientific--money! The high-end nature of this product contributes to its position as a protector of the environment. It is not a product intended to compete on price, rather it is a special piece that will be displayed with pride and used with care for many years.

Quality is perhaps the factor in the world of design that best protects our environment. The esteemed timepiece company, Patek Phillipe of Switzerland, for example, sells watches for tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases. This successful business is based on the idea that once you own a Patek, you not only own it for life but your children's children also own it because of its extreme quality. The environment will not be damaged on their watch. The Ensalada has a similar goal: to be valued enough by its owners to be passed along to future generations.

OK, maybe I'll rant a bit: so we are absolved from our responsibility for designing ecological products when we make them really expensive. Huh? And since when is the role of a salad bowl to be handed down from generation to generation? It's a day-to-day functional object, and should be designed as such. Quality does not equate to price, and it certainly doesn't equate to protecting our environment. There are lots and lots of high quality excellently designed products that are ecologically unsound (the Coca Cola plastic bottle, perhaps?). Patek Phillipe is a brand based on elitism: do you think that buyers are actually passing those watches down to keep them out of landfills, or is that from an ad campaign designed to help affluent people convince themselves that they need something that is much, much more expensive than any functionality it can possibly deliver?

Environment awareness and long-term thinking are important, maybe even critical, aspects of design. But justifying environmentalism through elitism masked as quality is cynical and ultimately unhelpful.

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While I completely agree with the idea that products should last and that a throwaway society is a bad idea, trying to rectify that by making thing additionally inaccessible seems like a pretty weak way to make a large social change. If he means it, it's akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. But I don't think he means it. I think it's a justification for creating a luxury product, which makes it more about conspicuous consumption than ecological awareness.

While I don't appreciate that salad bowl's attempt to play the ecology card in defense of an elite product, there is a deep truth here that should not be thrown out altogether: design has been co-opted into helping create the society of the disposable we currently inhabit – and, though to the short-minded it may seem so, IT WASN'T ALWAYS THIS WAY.

There was a time when things like cookware, rocking chairs, the tools of a craftsman, etc. were handed down to the next generation. That was because these things were hard to come by, and for the most part were *designed* to be purchased once per lifetime. Iron skillets don't wear out.

Now the economic success of companies has come to *depend* on several cars, couches, screwdrivers and salad bowls per lifetime. This in turn has created a consumer that has actually come to accept the consumability of what were once durable products. Poor products are accepted as 'meant to wear out and be replaced' and value is enthroned above almost every other valid consideration (design, longevity).

Worse still, design is now being used to sex up low-end (disposable) products, casting higher-end, more durable products as elitist and overpriced (and it doesn’t exactly help that they sometimes are).

Swatch changed the watch industry by getting down the price, applying excellent design as a differentiator, and sealing up the cases - battery and all. Who would want to own just one watch? Well, before Swatch, everyone.

Wonka was wrong: there's just no return on an everlasting gobstopper.

So while I detest the uber high-end ‘Harrods toothbrush’ kind of products, I detest even more this waterfall of plastic we are subject to, with companies simply metering the spigots and collecting the profits at the expense of a toxic world.

Our ability to acquire is wonderful and was hard won through work and ingenuity. But sadly, our capacity to want has been perfectly tuned to a deadly pitch.

doesn't his use of the word 'protect' imply some action that serves the environment? a high price only marginalizes a product's participation in the destruction, making it seem as if it's environmentally sound when compared to the sea of Wal-mart plastics floating by.

pretty lame-o argument.

I guess you could take it another way and choose to believe what he is trying to highlight (in his own snobby way) is it's not the throw away Walmart version and that makes it the better choice. I get exceedingly tired of all the things designed to last for approximately 5 times before they discolor, disintegrate, and ultimately get disposed.




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This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on December 31, 2004 3:36 PM.

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