sarah k
As part of launching our circularity and eyewear refurbishment program, we sat down with designer, curator ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ and Supercyclers founder Sarah K to talk about sustainability in design. 

Thinking about sustainability in design seems to come naturally to you, but was there a time when it didn’t, and what was the turning point for you?

It was the combination of a few things. When I was living in Hobart with my family between 2006-2009, I would watch as the logger’s trucks carrying trees so large they had to be anywhere from 100 to 1000 years old traveled past my design store's window, from the pristine ancient forests of South Western Tasmania to Triabunna. The trucks went past up to a dozen times a day, while we were being told by the government, forestry reps and the paper pulp industry that they were categorically not logging old growth forests.

That was my first experience of the bare-faced lies being told about our treatment of the environment by those with a vested interest.

Around the same time, I read an article online about millionaire David de Rothschild’s Plastikki, the boat he had built from recycled plastic bottles to sail around the world to highlight the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The article was accompanied by some shocking images of marine wildlife choked to death by plastic debris.

I could no longer design, to create things that contributed to this devastation. And I think what crystallised this was visiting Milan to participate in the Salone del Mobile for the first time in 2009.

The city of Milan transforms for the Salone del Mobile. The streets, piazzas, galleries, department stores, small shop windows, warehouses, factories, and the endless exhibition halls of the main Salone are all transformed and filled with handsome newly designed things.

Milan welcomed us into its classified palatial villas, off limits at any other time, in partnership with the biggest of the luxury brands. We slipped into event openings, no invitation required in those days, entry into everywhere possible - and we gained the rarefied privilege of being an insider able to witness a glimpse into the future of the design world. 

At the same time as appreciating and enjoying this privilege, the sheer, endless volume of stuff on show was overwhelming. I wanted it, but I wanted to shrink from it all in horror too.

How can there be so much? Can we really consume all of this? Can the world sustain it? Is it ok to just produce things without getting permission from anywhere? It seems so hedonistic, so mindless of the consequences, and so wrong in some way that I couldn’t quite define.

While I was seduced and enthralled by the creative energy, the cleverness, the result and the tangible evidence of all this creativity, there was an infinite mountain of stuff and no one was talking about that at all. Almost as though if that was acknowledged, design might become redundant, and we’d risk being erased.

I left Milan feeling the weight of this dichotomy. I didn’t want to quit the career I love, designing and making things is in my blood, but I had to ask myself the question: how can we reconcile being creative, living a creative, productive life with the least impact on the planet?

Asking that question has become my life’s work, and I’ve known from the beginning there’s not just one answer.

With time and commitment, and as a result of asking this question over and over again, with every project in a new and lateral way - I’ve evolved a body of work to illustrate how to answer it.

If you ask yourself that same question, it can also shift your thinking – and this is what the Sustainablist Masterclass is all about.

It turns out, it’s us that has to change, not the products. A product, after all is just that – a product of us.

A product’s relationship to the world, its environmental sustainability, can be addressed and built into the heart of the product from the outset.

The postscript to this story is that I launched Supercyclers, and in 2012 I was back in Milan saying what I wanted to say by curating SOS (supercycle our souls). This was the first ever international survey exhibition of contemporary approaches to sustainability in design.

Over the course of the Milan Design Week the exhibition was visited by over 70,000 people, among them a swag of global press who wrote about the show, using it to create a theme of sustainable design at the Salone. It did exactly what I hoped it would, it began an important conversation about the impact that our industry has on the world.

What is it about the conversation around sustainability in fashion or design that bothers you and what do you think are the big changes need to be made?

Oh my god fashion. Don’t get me started. My brother Nicholas who is my business partner in the sustainablist line our fashion initiative, put it best.

Just before we were about to launch our Little Black Smart Dress at the end of 2020, Stella McCartney launched a collection called ‘the A-Z of sustainability’. I was very interested to see what this was all about and tuned in to the live event. It was a catwalk event staged in a park. The models and clothes were very pretty, but I couldn’t see anything that was any different or sustainable on first impression.

While it was still streaming, I searched for a statement from Stella about the collection, and found one. It began by stating ‘I barely even know what the word sustainable means any more...’.

The article then went on to publish an alphabet of words: A is for Accountability and B is for British - essentially a whole lot of words – or talk, which only added to the confusion for me. The most I could see was that there was 50% recycled fabric being used. If you’re going to make a song and dance about it like this at least let’s do 100!

The fact is, even though someone like Stella McCartney is trying to do the right thing, unless she does so by stepping outside of the industry, there can actually be no real change made. The commentary is going to become a part of the blur that she is trying to clarify. That’s because a brand like Stella McCartney is sold in department stores in cities all over the globe. The sheer number of garments in each collection, from each season, each year, that are ordered, manufactured, shipped and flown around the planet means that any collection produced is by nature, going to have a negative impact on the planet and can be seen as unsustainable. This is irrespective of the rhetoric spruked by the brand, even if the intention is good, which I’m sure it is.

A new alphabet describing what is sustainability is not what is needed. Actioning sustainable outcomes in the material world is.

In fact, it would be better to do something and say nothing, than say something and do nothing. Better for the planet, which is the point of the exercise.

Nick and I were watching it together and when I made these observations, he replied, “The problem with the fashion industry is the fashion industry.” It’s an industry that operates within constructs that make it inherently unsustainable. There is just no way to make sustainable change within the system as it stands, in this model, on this scale, without dismantling, downscaling or stopping altogether.

Let me break it down even further, because there’s more than one issue here. (And apologies to Stella McCartney for using her as an example, she is actually doing some amazing work on the Vegan front, replacing animal leather with mushroom mycelium.) Every single medium to large fashion brand – all the luxury brands and the obvious bigger fast fashion chains and juggernauts all fall prey to this, by virtue of existing.

A lot of the current focus for solutions in sustainability in fashion is centred on materiality. On using recycled material or organic fabric, which is a great first step. But without addressing what happens to the garment after the consumer has finished with it, the story is only being half told. Or addressed. And half addressed in this instance amounts to being (wholly) unsustainable.

Another focus gaining ground is an over reliance on carbon offsetting. By reducing a brand or businesses’ negative impact on the environment to a measured carbon footprint and simply paying a carbon offsetting organisation to plant trees or similar, to equal that number, as though a mathematical equation is going to let us off the hook, without actively making any responsible change to the behaviour of the brand or business at all. In other words, do as you’ve been doing and pay someone else to make that look better than it is.

This is not just true of the fashion industry. It’s true of any industry making products or material things. The picture needs to be wider. Responsibility has to be taken. Which shouldn’t be so difficult for us, we’re already taking the responsibility for making the things – it’s not a big stretch to extend that responsibility to the ‘end’ of the product’s useful life.

Can you explain what circularity in design means?

Just like sustainability, circularity is a word that’s open to interpretation and is already being used with many varied intentions, which can be a good thing.

A Circular Economy is an over-arching economic system that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, pollution and the pillaging of the natural world through mining and agriculture. It’s an economic system that requires us to move away from the linear system we’re currently living in, and there’s a global movement gaining ground for this system to be embraced.

But on a more micro-scale – every organisation / enterprise / business can create it’s own circularity, and this is not counter to an eventual macro circularity, rather this will help facilitate change on a broader scale. 

Circularity in this context is probably best described as creating an ecosystem.

So that instead of there being a linear chain of events for a product – a beginning middle and end (what we used to think of as an unknown end, but that we now know is an end in incineration, landfill or ocean-bound waste in the majority of cases), there is a continual cycle of manufacture, repair, reparation, re-use, collection and re-manufacture.

That’s a really simplified explanation – there are also circular ways to farm food and manufacture materials that will be used to create products, circular ways in which to distribute them, market them, sell and re-sell them. Within every step of our material / synthetic world there are microcosms that can reflect this idea of circularity or healthy lifecycle. 

Circularity is a step towards creating a holistic approach to sustainability, but again, it shouldn’t be relied on alone. No one thing is going to save us. It takes a number of different things.

That’s why having a strong ideology behind these practical solutions, is useful. If the ideology guides us, no matter the means we use to achieve them, we’ll get to the same outcome. This is the most important thing to me.

The best thing about this ideology driven approach, is that it doesn’t mean a designer or maker has to alter their aesthetic sensibility or style within their existing practice.

The sustainablist ideology is one of considering the built and made world in light of the least impact on the planet. And taking action, responsible action, in that product – that sees this through, one way or another.

In other words, designing and making things for the world – without taking responsibility for those things into the future, should no longer be happening. When you think about it, the unregulated way in which we make endless things in the world, out of whatever our money can buy and with no thought for the future, is plain crazy. When the global population was smaller we may have gotten away with that attitude. But today, it’s just not tenable. 

Reflecting upon on your course, why do you think circularity in design is mostly ignored? 

I think because the western capitalist, colonial and patriarchal system that we live in doesn’t ask us to consider it. Just like it doesn’t always ask us to consider the lives, and the ethical treatment of the people behind the scenes making products. A design brief also doesn’t traditionally involve the consideration of the past or the future within this system, which is why I've evolved the 'New Design Formula' I use in my own practice and teach as a central tenet of the Masterclass. 

Can you talk us through your design practices, which involve the re-imagining of discarded waste? And why has this become such an important principle of Supercyclers? 

Reimagining waste is so important. In the the Sustainablist Masterclass, I’ve broken down the ways we can tackle sustainable solutions to the material world into several different approaches. In the first approach in the Supercyclers project, we used the ‘material approach’, to explore waste as a resource by creating objects of beauty from single use plastic bags.

For this project we focused on the theme of 'delicate beauty’, which allowed us to create a discussion and to draw attention to the ridiculousness of single use plastic by reframing it. Ultimately that creative starting point really fuelled the beginnings our campaign to end single use plastic. But it wasn’t until I teamed up with industrial designer Andrew Simpson to create Marine Debris Bakelite, where we really put this idea of making the ugly beautiful into action in a much bigger way.

Made from 100% ocean plastic waste collected from Australian beaches, the Marine Debris Bakelite products were the outcome of this approach, all beautiful in their own unique way, collectible and completely recyclable.

As an extension of the Marine Debris Bakelite, and because there is little to no recycling of textiles infrastructure in this country, I’ve also currently been working on initiatives and innovation with textiles waste, including the Pressing Matters Project, with circular innovators Seljak Brand and social enterprise, Community Resources.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can make the discarded desirable again?

It’s easy. It begins with mind over matter. If you’re good at what you do, and if you have the ability to make beauty from the raw materials you use, then you can also make beauty out of the discarded too!

Start by imagining what it is that you want to attain. It just takes tenacity, persistence and setting a high benchmark for yourself.

I always make an effort in my work to raise the bar of a recycled aesthetic to something which is well designed, refined, resolved, modern and sustainable. 

I’m also never content with the first iteration, so in order to create work from waste which meets my goals, it’s always a process of asking myself is this fully resolved? And if the answer is no or not quite, I keep going until it is. A refined finish is just a matter of a refined process.

How can people educate themselves about green washing and do you have any recommended reading on this topic? 

Most of my knowledge on the subject has come from my own experience by actioning sustainable design and products. There isn’t a textbook for it, as such, so I’ve created one with the Sustainablist Masterclass. It’s a methodology that sidesteps traditional design teaching and I would recommend taking it, even just to read through the ideas in it. It’s a great starting point!

The other key ingredients you need to avoid the greenwash is to be smart, rational and thorough when exploring the hype. There’s a tendency for brands to cloud things or co-opt the terminology or language to describe sustainability in marketing without fully understanding what that terminology refers to. Which makes it harder to separate the good the bad and the deceptive. I’d suggest looking very closely at the claims people make and then what it is they are actually doing.