Brief Encounters

Highlights from the third Design For Planet festival.

THERE’S ALWAYS one speaker who stands out from the crowd at any conference. At the Design Council’s third Design for Planet festival, held in Norwich in late 2023 – aimed at showcasing the latest planet-resilient solutions – that accolade went to Bas van Abel of Fairphone. An engaging and lanky Dutchman, he took us through all the ups and downs of how a designer with no knowledge of smartphones ended up creating a phone with a reduced carbon footprint and subverting the toxic tradition of built-in obsolescence. First, he gave us some shocking facts: there are currently 1.4bn phones sold each year. ‘There are more phones (dead and alive) on the planet now than there are people. And the average lifespan is only two to three years. Only 15 percent are re-used or recycled.’ This is why, around 10 years ago, he ended up crowdsourcing support for a phone whose battery and screen could be easily replaced. He then learned the hard way how to refine and improve that product to the point where its latest (fifth) iteration is not just market competitive, but also influencing other rivals in a good way (Apple recently made their iphone batteries replaceable).

Being ‘mission driven’ (a phrase that cropped up a lot at the conference) means van Abel also spends time campaigning against the inhumane working conditions in Cobalt mines – source of a crucial battery ingredient for everything from phones to electric cars. Fairphone is now in partnership with Google and Tesla to improve labour conditions in the Congo, where most of the mining happens. ‘We are also the only ones in the phone industry that pay a living wage rather than minimum wage,’ he said. Added to this – with the aim of encouraging longer ownership cycles – Fairphone is now offering an unusual subscription service: ‘People use the phone for a monthly fee and…we lower the price of subscription the longer you use the phone.’

He finished his speech quoting activist Gus Speth: ‘The top environmental problem of our time is selfishness, greed and apathy. For that we need a cultural transition.’

In the meantime, he offered us this advice: ‘From a sustainability point of view it’s pretty simple: if you use your phone twice as long, you have halved the electronic waste.’ That’s commitment we can all put into practice, easily. And there were – happily – quite a few practical and positive takeaways from the two-day event which looked at everything from fashion through housing to transport.

The Design Council brought a variety of speakers and sectors together at this year’s festival

A fascinating panel discussion on sustainable energy saw Alexandra Meagher from Octopus revealing how the company shifts consumer attitudes towards green energy through price incentives. She said: ‘We have something we call a Fan Club. If you are near an offshore wind farm and if the wind is blowing you get a discount off your bill. There are local benefits of up to 20 or even 50 percent off. This has changed the way people see wind farms. People change from NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) to YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard).’ She observed: ‘If you give people a price signal it will change their behaviour.’

Lunar Energy was also on the panel – a company ‘providing the hardware and software to power homes through solar energy’ according to their representative Sam Weavers (essentially, they have devised compact batteries, like lego blocks, that you can stack to store solar energy year round). The main problem Weavers encountered, he said, is scepticism. ‘Consumers are not trusting the tech. We need batteries and EV chargers being used in everyday situations. The market should be designed in ways that service the users. The challenge is getting the sector greener but, in addition, regulation and power companies and governments need to trust that the energy is there.’

Sophie Whitney representing Regen, a notfor- pro­ t Energy company (currently working with the Welsh government on energy policy) told us about their work supporting communities in developing local sustainable energy infrastructure, like community ground source heat pumps. ‘Where they work well, they reduce their consumption from the energy grid by 68 percent...If you have enough of these replacements across millions of homes then you reduce consumption across the region and people are less impacted by price shocks.’

The entrance to the University of East Anglia’s Enterprise Centre. Image Credit: Denisa Ilie

So here are tangible solutions already in play. - e same was true in a session on product design, mediated by Alice Fisher, design editor of ­ e Guardian. I’ve written about Smile Plastics here before, but I hadn’t realised quite how far the pair who run the company from its Welsh HQ, Rosalie McMillan and Adam Fairweather, have gone in their mission to make their high quality panels not just fully and locally recycled and recyclable, but also desirable. Said Fairweather: ‘We’re constantly collaborating with customers to meet their aesthetic needs, working closely with them on their own waste. We love to have our products sent back (to be further recycled). The recyclability of our materials is paramount. All of our materials, if we get them back, we can recycle them into something new.’

It was exciting to hear about Smile’s expansion plans, tapping further into the conference theme: collaboration. Said McMillan: ‘We have great impact here in the UK and it’s building. If we are going to make huge changes on an international scale then it’s all about us partnering with international companies on the manufacturing side of things as well as sales and marketing.’

On a smaller scale – but also benefitting from international partnerships – we heard from Edward Bulmer, founder of Edward Bulmer paints, which has ‘sidestepped the petrochemical food chain’ in their manufacture. ‘Polymer chains require carbon,’ he explained. ‘But there’s no reason why we should only use fossil carbons. We take waste straw and wheat as our carbon sources. And we build a polymer chain to react with the plant sugars.’ The company works with Auro paints, in Brunschweig, Germany, using their toxin-free paint bases but with an English palette. One of the paint’s USPs is transparency: it has an ingredient list. Bulmer said: ‘Paint normally has no ingredient list. There is no legislation requiring that. But we do it voluntarily.’ Bulmer also puts the breathability (SD) value on the paint (another USP). ‘We have an SD value of 0.1.’

Another massively polluting industry is textile dying. There is much more work to be done here, but panellist Sophie Ward, one of the team of synthetic biologists behind Colorifix, gave us reasons to be hopeful. She cited an example which involved ‘taking the genetic sequencing of the blue in a parrot feather and, through bioengineering, growing that colour in the laboratory. There are 12 traditional pigments that artists have used and they are all we need to offer the full spectrum of colours.’ The idea is that if only plant materials are involved in the dying process, when the waste is ejected into the environment, these elements will be ‘recognised by microbes in the area to help break them down.’

This is just a tiny snapshot taken from the inspirational presentations and individuals encountered at UEA’s Enterprise Centre, one of the UK’s most sustainable buildings (by Architype). And they all played their part in sustaining a new emotion I have named, relating to our climate crisis, thanks to Katie Tregidden. Reading from her book Broken: Mending and Repair in a Throwaway World, she recommended moving forward with not blind faith but ‘stubborn optimism’.

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