The Detritus of Capitalism

MLD RR 001

The Design Museum’s new exhibition, Waste Age: What Can Design Do? presents a survey of recycled materials and products. The exhibition’s curators describes it as a campaign to “fix” the “problem” of waste. All that is needed, the exhibition implies, is a change of perspective. An ideal, innovative designer will see waste not as a problem but as an inexpensive and readily available material. An ideal consumer will make informed, virtuous, purchases. The economic activity created by such collaboration between designers and consumers promises to help tackle environmental issues of waste, pollution, and climate changes that result from toxic matter being burned or thrown into oceans and landfill sites.

The exhibition is a campaign, it’s true—but not in the way the curators mean it to be. The exhibition is an advertisement campaign for a new marketplace of green products. As such, it rebrands an old ideology that economic activity can solve existential threats. Waste, pollution, and climate change are often framed in narratives whereby capitalism promises to solve crises. Boris Johnson used this narrative to extol “free markets,” “innovation,” and “technology” in a recent speech on climate change delivered to the UN general assembly. 

Focusing on technological solutions to crises is also a strategy prevalent in architecture and the construction sector. The exhibition looks at examples of new materials in construction, including recycled fibre and mycelium panelling. Its inclusion of architecture is important, and worthwhile: the built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, while building and construction works are responsible for 39% of all global carbon emissions. But the exhibition does not sufficiently emphasise the environmental costs of demolishing existing buildings and constructing new ones—it is more concerned with material innovation. While green materials research is absolutely important, emphasising novelty and construction risks diminishing the urgency of renewal, repurposing, and maintenance as major strategies for reducing emissions. A truly green, and more viable architecture after architecture as we know it would prioritise these strategies. At a moment in which the British government has scaled back policies for improving the efficiency of existing buildings; insulation installation rates have plateaued, and Johnson is promoting nuclear and hydrogen as “green” options, we must not overlook existing, available, and less flashy technologies such as renewable energy, home insulation, and heat pumps. 

To convince us that we need ever more technologically advanced materials and products, Waste Age employs graphs, statistics, diagrams, and buzz words, announcing the discovery of “lost value in waste” and celebrating “circular economies,” “start-ups,” and “innovation.” Designers are described as “alchemists… looking not for gold but for degradable materials” (what is not written, but implied, is that these materials are the new equivalent to gold). Such a framing of the problem occludes a discussion of the role that global market forces, operating vectors of class, play in steering discussions of climate change away from their own emissions. 

The exhibition doesn’t only occlude these discussions but harbours an implied classism itself. The first thing you see upon entering sets the parameters of this. There is a diagram on the wall labelled “waste generation by income level.” The diagram does not include any context such as actual numbers, geographical markers, or dates. Such simplification renders it almost meaningless – but not quite. The implication is that a “lower-income” population is tiny, because its low rates of waste generation render its area in the diagram small. The upper three tiers of income level show three almost equally large areas of waste generation. This seeming evenness is because the few extremely rich people’s massive wastage equates with the far greater number of middle-income people’s combined waste. This is a graphic legerdemain that creates the illusion that the very rich waste about as much as middle-income earners, which is untrue. The effect is that most visitors to the exhibition (who presumably fall into one of the two middle sections, labelled “lower-middle income” and “upper-middle income”, as they can afford the £12.50 entry ticket but are not arriving by helicopter) feel aligned with the “high income” superrich; their wealth and responsibility are equated. Middle-income people will therefore be less likely to object to disproportionate wealth owned by the superrich, and less likely to feel solidarity with those of a lower income. 

The next room is a celebration of plastic. Wall text describes plastic as a material that is “extraordinary… lightweight, malleable, waterproof and durable,” “bright,” “delicate,” and “inexpensive.” It fulfils our “everyday needs,” protects “our health and safety,” and “has transformed our lives.” Such wording plants a feeling of dependency that recalls how concrete has been framed within the construction industry, in terms of its solidity, versatility, and longevity. Within these celebrations of plastic and concrete, the crisis of embodied energy and waste is presented as if it is an unforeseen error, not an endemic issue with consumer capitalism. The political influence of the plastics and concrete industries through donations, and the creation of manufacturing and construction projects, employment, and economic growth, is a powerful reinforcement for the status quo. 

Waste Age promises to help by presenting solutions to the crisis of waste. But what it presents are products. Plastic takeaway food containers are displayed next to their new, recycled green counterparts. Brands like Algramo, a Chilean company (partnered with Unilever and Nestle), are promoted for their sales of small reusable containers with the aim of replacing single use plastic packaging used for dispensing household cleaning products. Is this really a solution? These products help satisfy a demand that wasn’t necessarily there before. “Why do we need these recycled rice husk takeaway containers anyway,” asks my friend, “when we could just bring our own bowl from home, as people have done for years?” The same question goes for the array of cleaning products. “Why would I need all these different cleaning products?” my friend asks again, “And in new, greener, packages?” At this point, another visitor to the exhibition asks us why we have a problem with companies like Algramo. “Everyone is always going to need to clean, aren’t they?” he asks. Indeed, my friend replies, and cleaning is perfectly possible with boiling water, lemon, and vinegar—the issue is when companies present their products as indispensable, and thus divest people of traditional knowledge (how to clean using natural, household substances).

Algramo and other companies presented in the exhibition are not necessarily malevolent. But neither are they as radical as suggested. A major issue with the exhibition’s design is the brevity with which brands and products are presented. The contexts in which products emerge, their contribution or disruption to the status quo, and their potential (ethical) value, are flattened into one-liner explanations that read like corporate blurbs.

The overriding message from these blurbs is that waste is bad when it no longer has economic value and is only redeemed when it is reintroduced into the economy. In placing a monetary value on waste, the exhibition reveals a prevailing, and hidden, ideology. This ideology is one of innovation—that is, an ideology of increasing production and consumption. Wall text uncritically lists the “actions” and “impacts” of brands including Tesco, Lush, and Sodastream by Pepsico. This is advertising content, but it is not labelled as such. Many of these companies’ “actions” are reinventions of long-standing practices, such as the Tiffin Tin.  

Indeed, long-standing practices of repair, repurposing, and maintenance are given little space in the exhibition beyond a section titled “Indigenous Wisdom.” Edward Burtynsky’s large-format photograph of plastic waste in Nairobi presents Kenyan people staring at the camera that looms above. The implication is that these “poor” people don’t know how to use and profit from waste (unlike innovators in the Global North). Furthermore, the people are presented as if they live in squalor. The photograph’s adjacency to the exhibition’s section on plastic’s contribution to “health and safety” in our “everyday lives” is telling. The stage is set for saviours to arrive, extract valuable waste material, and transform it into profitable products made “more affordable to more people,” apparently, including those on whose lands the waste was dumped in the first place. 

The phrase about making products “more affordable to more people” features in the next section of the exhibition, which describes Planned Obsolescence as a “design philosophy.” More accurate might be that Planned Obsolescence is an inevitable feature of capitalist competition and accelerationism. The contextualisation of Planned Obsolescence is partial in both senses of the word. The narrative focuses solely on the 1930s, when the “depths of economic recession” apparently made Planned Obsolescence a necessity. Four sentences are devoted to the advantages of Planned Obsolescence. In fact, Planned Obsolescence occurred a decade earlier, emerging as a competitive tool for General Motors and Ford, for example, and a worldwide cartel of light-bulb manufacturers. The planetary cost of ceaseless cycles of production, consumption, obsolescence, and waste is left under-explored, and criticality is diluted into the meek statement: “The economic model of deliberately wasteful consumption is no longer sustainable.” Any one of the exhibition’s participants could evade such an accusation by denying deliberate wastefulness and emphasising innovation. 

As we read a wall text promoting circular economies, my friend and I talk with someone from a clothing and fabric upcycling brand who tells us he is a “believer” in the circular economy and many of the products and companies on display. It is difficult to challenge a convert for fear of sounding rude. And he has a point—up to a point. The circular economy – an industrial economy that aims at refurbishing products and recycling materials to reduce wastage – sometimes does help slow the extraction of materials from the earth by replacing them with existent and otherwise wasted matter. “So, then you can generate profit from material that is already available,” he adds. His emphasis on profit confirms the fact that, far from being a radical alternative to our current economic system, circularity is attractive precisely because it promises to generate profit by expanding existing markets, or creating new ones, thereby increasing economic activity. The wall text describes circularity as “keeping materials in the economy and out of the environment,” as if a material has no environmental impact so long as it is being traded, and as if the economic sphere itself has no relation to the planet. A more accurate definition would explain that these versions of circularity keep materials in the economy and extend or open new loops of profit where profit might otherwise be lost. In so doing, the circular economy introduces ever more opportunities for extracting value. Of course, circular economies do not have to serve such profit-based ends—it’s just that business-as-usual has often appropriated them to greenwash its growth complex.

The brand this man works for (Zalando), and others showcased here, are not necessarily without genuinely eco-ethical ambitions. But the Stella McCartney SU19 ECONYL® Jacket and Trousers, on display as a beacon of sustainable fashion, and made using regenerated nylon from fishing nets and factory waste, are unaffordable to most people. This is a problem because these luxury goods create new demand through trendsetting. In turn, less virtuous companies cut corners in their production methods to imitate a recycled ‘look,’ undermining environmental aims. Class barriers are once again reinforced, when they are precisely what need to be challenged. Why not learn to darn clothes that you already have, rather than hanker after new recycled ones? 

The message the exhibition presents by showcasing these products emphasises a consumer’s individual responsibility in making ethical purchases. Near the end of the exhibition there is a wall diagram labelled “How to reduce your contribution to climate change.” It presents an individuated emphasis on self-responsibility, ranging from upgrading light bulbs (a strategy placed on the left-hand side of the graph to indicate its relatively low effectiveness) to the suggestion to “have one fewer child” (placed on the far right, as the most effective). This emphasis deflects the issue of waste from the political realm of state, corporate, and systemic problems. Fossil fuel companies have in recent years being pushing the message about individual responsibility and carbon footprints in order to deflect attention from their corporate extractions. The diagram’s “limits to growth” rhetoric implicates the global south for having too many children. At best, this replicates myths of scarcity and competition and, at worst, it treads close to racist, Malthusian territory.  

Exiting through the gift shop, we pass animal wash mittens (£8 each), rice husk coffee cups (£12), and a water bottle described as “Pure, honest and transparent.” The exhibition’s acknowledgements credit the Reuben Brothers (the second wealthiest family in the UK, whose profits partly derive from mining in Indonesia and South Africa, and who make extensive use of offshore tax havens). One of the Reubens’ companies, Etopia, is a real estate developer that seeks to end the UK housing crisis “profitably.” Another major supporter of the exhibition is Dassault Systèmes, described here as “A pioneer in computer-aided design.” This company is a subsidiary of Dassault Systèmes, which owns Dassault Aviation, an aircraft manufacturer of military and business jets. Such sponsorship relations are all too common in the museums sector, and deserve notice because, amongst other incentives (philanthropic tax deductions), they prove that industrial stakeholders take a very real interest in how their actions are presented in cultural contexts. The recent furore with the Energy Revolution Gallery at London’s Science Museum is a case in point

At the opening reception for Waste Age, the Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, Greg Hands, gives a speech celebrating what he forecasts as a “Green industrial revolution.” Hands is also the Minister for Business, Energy, and Clean Growth. His vocabulary is not unlike that used within the exhibition, as he forecasts “innovation economies,” and “profit.” Hands mentions, in passing, that we should expect that producing new, green technologies will require the extraction of minerals including coltan and lithium. He frames this process as a kind of planetary collateral damage, inevitable as part of business and “growth.”  

I check Twitter for @DesignMuseum as we leave. People’s hash-tagged tweets abound with mea-culpa style confessions using the collective plural pronouns “we” and “us.” They report seeing “designs that will transition us out of our #wasteful ways of living” and anticipate the exhibition’s contribution to bettering “#yourfutureself” in the lead up to “#COP26.” “This is an end of the world party,” my friend mutters. The exhibition isn’t unique. It reflects and reinforces the narrative that Greg Hands and so many political and corporate alliances force upon us. In this narrative, socioeconomic inequity and the planetary crisis can be solved by financialising the detritus of capitalism. But as the Labour MP Clive Lewis recently pointed out, asking capitalism to save the planet is akin to asking a tiger to go vegan. Simply innovating and tinkering with the status quo is not enough, we need systems of radical care that prioritise people, animals, and the planet, over profit. As it stands, the dominant narrative repackages an old tale in which economic activity can solve existential threats. Surely, continued problems of global poverty, zoonotic pandemics, plummeting biodiversity, and rising climatic temperatures attest to the fact that this story is an anthropocentric fiction. An ethical alternative must prioritise wellbeing—and not just that of people, but of every being and thing with whom we share the planet.

Becca Voelcker on behalf of MOULD

  1. alicia pivaro on MLD 40

    Interesting stuff but too many words – needs to be more succinct, set of statements?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *