From Greta Thunberg's protests outside the Swedish parliament to the UK's Extinction Rebellion movement, global awareness of environmental issues is at an all-time high. As a species, we're increasingly aware that our actions have an impact on the planet, whether we're burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests or filling landfill sites with plastic.
Within this context, the green movement is driving changes in every industry, and design is no exception. "The movement towards more eco-conscious products has created a drive for sustainable development across all areas of design," says Rue Kothari. She is the fair director for Downtown Design Dubai, a luxury design and interiors fair, with more than 200 events across six days, focusing on disciplines from architecture to furniture, and interiors to graphic design. This year, the theme of the fair, which runs from Tuesday, November 12 to Friday, November 15, is "it's just one", inviting people to explore how our decisions on how we live and consume affect the planet.
“From architects to product designers, there is now a greater sense of responsibility about how the objects we engineer have a long-lasting effect on our environment and well-being,” she continues. “Architects are now thinking more deeply about how buildings and their materials can actually promote health and wellness.
"Product designers are employing more technological innovation to minimise the drain on natural resources, giving us objects that are 3D-printed, made from recycled or natural materials, have multiple functions and subvert dated values of instant gratification."
This environmental awareness has driven innovation across both interior design and manufacturing. There are dozens of futuristic product examples, from window panels that can charge your mobile phone to light sources powered by living micro-organisms. Earlier this year, a group of students from the Royal College of Art in London worked out how to turn toxic waste into beautiful (and safe) pottery, while more companies such as Norwegian furniture brand Nordic Comfort Products, which creates tables and chairs from materials recycled from local fish farming companies, keep popping up.
Global carpet manufacturer Interface, which has offices across the Middle East, has a product called Conscient: a carpet that emits virtually no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), one of the biggest contributors to poor air quality, protecting both the environment and our health.
Closer to home, designers Shaban and Mohammed Al Huniti of Raw Design & Build – which operates in Amman, Dubai and Italy – create upcycled furniture from old wooden pallets and other reclaimed wood. These are collected from construction sites, industrial areas, warehouses and so on, reducing both waste and the consumption of natural resources.
In the UAE, boutique home decor studio Tribe Dubai takes it one step further by only sourcing products that are sustainable, ethical, homemade and fair trade.
All of this innovation means buyers – commercial and domestic – have more choice today than they've ever had in the past. It's now possible to fit out a home with recycled glass tiles, bamboo wood flooring and even soundproof panels made from pine needles.
And these green choices don't come at the expense of style, either. Take the humble LED light bulb, for example. While we all know they are far more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, the LED varieties used to be rather utilitarian-looking. But today, brands such as the UK's Tala, which ships internationally, are incorporating them into stylish designs. Their version features a singular spiral LED filament, which is much more delicate and pleasing to the eye than the traditional chunky designs. Tala's latest range, Magma, also incorporates materials recycled from broken solar panels and the company runs a reforestation programme, donating a portion of its income to tree-planting across the globe to counteract carbon emissions generated by its own production.
Yet, while we're seeing plenty of positive action from producers, the role of the consumer in driving change is also vital. With retailers monitoring sales closely, it is up to us to vote with our wallets. Similar to the food industry, where once-obscure items such as quinoa have become commonplace in mainstream supermarkets thanks to consumer demand, the more you buy those low VOC paints, bamboo products and vegan leather textiles, the more readily available they'll become. Even simply turning down disposable items or asking manufacturers for details on the eco credentials of their products can make a big difference.
Still, Kothari believes there is a responsibility on the industry to pioneer eco design and show consumers what is possible. “There is a clear reason why the United Nations has been vocally advocating a set of Sustainability Goals for the world to adopt,” she says. “Designers, manufacturers, architects, developers and consumers all need to take responsibility for what they make, use and consume. The chain of use and life cycle of a product depends on everyone being committed to the consequences of their actions.”
Given that the planet will not heal itself overnight, it is clear that going green is more than just a trend. As resources are depleted, and legislation around unsustainable design and manufacture is tightened, it is entirely possible that it will become a necessity rather than a choice. There are already people working on everything from fabrics made from mushroom-like fibres to roofs designed to catch and filter water for kitchen and bathroom use, so who knows what the future of design will look like. Perhaps it won’t be long before we see flooring that turns the kinetic energy of our footprints into electricity, or a new material that creates a sustainable alternative to plastic.
“Ultimately, our planetary resources are finite, and as they become more scarce, the price of their use will rise, giving impetus to even the coldest of corporations to start thinking about manufacturing sustainably,” says Kothari. “The next generation of designers and consumers have been brought up in a world where they are more conscious of how their actions impact the Earth, and this paradigm shift in thinking will ensure that designers are obliged to design ethically, while consumers will think more carefully about what and how they consume.”
You can already see this shift, as many of us turn away from buying meaningless “stuff” and look for more meaningful experiences instead, Kothari adds. “[We’re] buying less and investing in good quality, durable pieces that have intrinsic and long-lasting value, rather than the quick-fix, throwaway culture we’ve lived in for the last 30 years.” Perhaps the planet has a second chance, after all.