Creating Sustainable Design Solutions with Eco Innovators’ Leyla Acaroglu

September 9, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and today, we go to our first Green is Good edition down under in Australia and we’re so excited and honored to have with us today Leyla Acaroglu. Leyla, welcome to Green is Good. LEYLA ACAROGLU: Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Leyla, before we get into any questions about the great organization you’re involved with, Eco Innovators, I’m going to ask you a little bit about yourself first. Talk a little bit about your journey, how you ended up here, and was this planned? Was this by accident? Was this a little bit serendipity? Talk a little bit about your history first please. LEYLA ACAROGLU: Well, when I finished studying high school, I really wanted to get into design. I thought, what a great job. I could spend all day being creative and be able to make thing and I had this crazy idea as a young person that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and so I went and studied product design or industrial design, which for people who don’t know, it’s basically everything out there that’s not a building or a piece of graphic material. Everything else is designed by people sitting in studios called product designers and I spent a couple years doing that and in the middle of it, I realized that there was so much I didn’t know about the impacts of that profession and one teacher said to me one day that just think that everything in nature is interconnected and as a designer, the choices that you make about materials and processes has potentially big impacts on the planet and everything it leaves on it so I was kind of freaked out by that and decided that I needed to learn more and moved on from design school to social science and sustainability so I was really sitting, understanding people and the planet and how everything works and so I did that and I finished studying those two degrees a while ago and since then have kind of forged a path in what’s called eco-design or design for sustainability so my profession now is all about trying to engage other designers and young people (not even that young actually, a lot of people who work in the design industry with sustainability and how there’s so much potential and opportunity for innovation if you look at sustainability as an opportunity rather than a problem. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re so right and we’re so thankful you’re on because this is such an important topic that we haven’t covered enough. So, you are the Sustainability Strategist and the Director of Eco Innovators. Before we get into what this whole design element is to sustainability, what is Eco Innovators? And I’m on your wonderful website. For our listeners out there who want to join along, it’s www.ecoinnovators.com.au. Can you share a little bit about what Eco Innovators does? LEYLA ACAROGLU: Sure. Well, we’re partly a consultancy where we provide advice to organizations big and small, government agencies, nongovernment agencies, you name it, around using sustainability as a strategy and how people can actually engage with sustainability as a business or a professional objective rather than being that kind of add-on thing that we have to do because somebody told us to and that’s part of what we do and the other part is that we create educational resources that are freely available and if people do go to the website, they can get links to a number of projects we’ve done that have been used in primary schools, secondary schools, and high schools around the world now from animation projects that talk about sustainability and lifestyle thinking and eco-design through to card games that can be played in the workplace or in an educational setting for understand how innovation and sustainability can be engaged and how that kind of approach, this kind of sustainability design thinking approach can really result in innovative outcomes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful, so now at Eco Innovators you talk about and I’m on your website now and first of all, for our listeners out there who, beyond this interview, want to hear Leyla’s great thoughts on this whole issue of lifestyle thinking and sustainability, you have to watch her TED talk. You’ve done such a great job with that TED talk. I watched it this past weekend. It was so wonderful to listen to but for our listeners today that haven’t had the ability to watch that yet, talk a little bit about what you mean about lifestyle thinking. LEYLA ACAROGLU: Sure, so basically, everything that’s created goes through a series of life cycle stages. Even you and I do so if I asked you to tell me your life story, you’d be able to tell me potentially how your parents met. Some people don’t have that much detail but most people can tell us the story of their childhood and their adolescence and where they are right now and they can tell you where they want to be and what we look at when we create a product or a product that already exists in the world is we look at everything that’s gone into creating it all the way back to the establishment of the farm if you’re making a woolen jumper or the mine site if you’re making an aluminum can. You see, if we go all the way back to the original conception stage of a product, we start to understand the different types of environmental impacts that different products have and we can compare them and we can compare them and we can start to make better choices if we’re a designer or a consumer or even a company so if you look at the car for example, it’s got hundreds of different parts from all over the world, different plastics, metal, minerals that have all been inspected and then they’ve been processed and they’ve been transported and packaged and then they get conformed into this car and then you and I buy it, we drive it for a few years. That’s the use phase and there’s an end of life and when you start to map the impacts that happen across those different lifestyle stage — there’s five in total — we start to get these really interesting picture and perspective as to where true environmental impacts occur because a lot of the time, we make decisions about what’s good or bad for the environment based on what my colleague and I like to refer as our environmental folklore, kind of like that really cute little guy in the back of your head telling you to do the right thing. When I used the example in my TED talk of when you’re in the supermarket and you’re getting offered the paper or plastic shopping bag and you take the paper bag because things like the better environmental option and we all know plastic bag ends up being stuck to trees or in the ocean but when we looked at the entire life of the paper bag and the plastic bag, what we actually discovered using the scientific methodology of lifestyle assessment, which is then international standard organization accredited process of assessing the environmental impacts of a product, we discovered that because of the weight of the plastic bag and the paper bag, so a plastic bag’s much lighter than a paper bag, the environmental impacts are greater across the entire life of the paper bag than they are for the plastic bag and what’s critical with this is that when you compare a kilo of plastic and a kilo of paper, plastic is more environmentally detrimental. It does have bigger impacts but carrying your groceries home from the supermarket doesn’t require a kilo of each product. It requires a few grams of plastic and quite a few more grams of paper so it’s about the quantity of the material that dictates the environmental impact and so it’s these kinds of things that we’ve learned and there’s lots of studies that have been done and we continue to do more that teach us these really interesting kind of myth busting ideas about sustainability and what that tells us with the bags is don’t go out and use plastic bags unless you want to use it as a trash can liner instead of a store bought one. That’s better but if you go to the supermarket, obviously the best thing is to take your own reusable bag and to use it between six and 10 times and then you get back the environmental impact in the production of the bag but anyway, lifestyle thinking basically is a way of seeing the world and it’s a way of exploring and understanding how we create and consume things and it’s being used now from small organizations through to massive corporations and some of our biggest companies in the world now are using life cycle thinking in order to assess the existing products they have and to make better choices and also to afford them innovation in product development and that’s something that I think is really critical if we’re going to start to address sustainability is that organizations who are responsible for creating the goods and services that we all enjoy and that we all need have the ability to start thinking across the entire life rather than looking at one stage, rather than saying we have to make it recyclable. Now, recycling is important but so is thinking about all of the different materials and how they’re processed and where they come from and what potential environmental impacts happen there way back at the beginning of the life cycle. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, your clients include big and small and companies that are multinational and also local? This is an issue that almost can affect any type of company, this whole issue of life cycle and design solutions. LEYLA ACAROGLU: Anybody who creates anything, even if it’s just purchasing, even if you’re an organization who doesn’t create things. The reality is is that even as an individual, we all participate in the economy and at the end of the day, the bigger area for our environmental impact comes down to our choices as consumers and we are all consumers in our day-to-day life but we are also consumers in our businesses. Even if you’re a secretary just choosing what tissues to buy for the office, that choice has a major impact and if you don’t understand which company is making better choices FSC, which is Forestry Council-certified paper as opposed to just your average tissue paper, which comes from potentially endangered areas, than you aren’t making the choices that help to facilitate a sort of economic shift towards sustainability and that’s where design comes in because well, on one hand, you have the consumers and on the other hand, you have the designers and the producers and the producers ultimately are the companies. They’re the ones producing the goods and of course, I shouldn’t forget the retailers as well because the retailers often affect what kinds of products we get on the marketplace but across that entire supply chain, there is so much opportunity for sustainability and by looking at the life of the product and taking those into consideration, there’s a huge scope for providing financially viable products in the marketplace because there is no reason why greener products need to cost more. A lot of the time, the greener product is one that’s more efficient in the way it’s being created and so then you get the economic benefit from the producer perspective and the consumer gets that benefit as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Leyla, we have listeners not only in the United States but across the world. Literally, we follow all our listeners in terms of when downloads happen and stuff. We get thousands upon thousands in both Europe, Asia, of course, Australia, New Zealand, and in South America, so talk a little bit about, we have about three and a half, four minutes left. Talk a little bit about the realities of choosing products that are designed better or how do we influence our big companies to make products that are designed better with sustainability in mind so we can help become part of the solution and not part of the problem as consumers? LEYLA ACAROGLU: Organizations really should be embracing what’s called product stewardship or extended producer responsibility, which is essentially where the company who produces the goods says, ‘We need to manage it across its entire life, including at the end of life,’ and therefore, the company, being responsible for the end of life of the product, will start to make better choices. That’s a really good indicator for consumers to start with. The really good companies are the ones who are saying, ‘We’ll take it back and we’ll recycle it when you’re done with it,’ because that tends to indicate that they’ve actually gone through the eco-design or the design of the sustainability process and it also means that they’re investing in the infrastructure to recapture and recycle at the end of life. Second to that, what consumers can do as well is completely separate to preferencing companies who are making those choices. If they can actually start to manage the products they own better- so one of the biggest problems we have with technological goods like mobile phones and laptops and all sorts of other electronic goods is that they have a really high level of obsolescence and that is where people replace them regularly and that obsolescence can be intentional so the company has actually created the product so you can’t open it and you can’t get the battery out. If the battery dies like my mobile phone is right now, it lasts two hours and I’m determined to not replace it but I have to really take it to an illegitimate repairer to get it fixed and that’s the situation right now, which is something that a lot of people face and most of the time, it’s much easier to just go back to your mobile phone company, cell phone company, and say, ‘I just want a new phone,’ and they’ll give it to you for free sometimes but the problem with that is it means that we have this incredible appetite for electronic or not even electronic, just general items, and so what consumers can start to do is to value the products that we own a little bit better and make that extra effort to look after them and to keep them longer and in the cases where it is available to them to invest in higher value goods, it seems really hard to do it but if a toaster costs $10, you’re kind of getting an indication that somewhere along the line, something’s not right because everything that goes into making something as simple as a toaster, as a designer, I can tell you now it’s complicated. There’s so many materials. There’s so many processes; packaging, transport, all of those things and if you are only paying $10 for it, somebody’s gotta be making that money and the toaster is going to die after 12 months and you’re going to have to go out and buy another one. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. Go on. I’m sorry. LEYLA ACAROGLU: I was just going to say when we invest, when the market starts to be investing in higher value goods, not necessarily a huge amount more expensive, but if we demand lower-cost goods, then lower-cost goods will be on the market so one of the problems that we have is that the producers actually respond to consumer demand and consumers go, ‘Well, $10 toasters seem like a great idea,’ and what we really need to start doing is we need to start having a kind of tennis game between consumers and producers where we start to pay a little bit more because we see the value, because a toaster that costs you $50 is going to last you maybe five or six years so that’ll actually get the same economic output. You can make toast. You don’t have to keep going back to the store to buy a new one. You don’t have to throw it away. All of those things make it more positive for you and as a producer, then hopefully, they can start to engage with more sustainable production and design methods with the cost. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Leyla, thank you so much. You’re amazing. You are an inspiring eco-innovator and truly living proof that green is good.