Insights - Design & Product

We Have Been Terrible Designers

Richard van der Laken, graphic designer and co-founder of design platform, What Design Can Do, urges the design community to play a role in addressing the staggering waste crisis

Design must stop waste

What Design Can Do (WDCD) has launched the No Waste Challenge, its third Climate Action Challenge in partnership with the IKEA Foundation. This global design competition calls on all creatives and innovators to address the enormous impact of waste and consumerism on climate change.
Winning ideas will be made into reality with €10,000 in funding and a 12-month development programme co-created with Impact Hub. You can submit your entry here. Deadline is April 20, 2021.

Late last year, a report by Reuters revealed that thrift stores and clothing banks across the United States — the world’s biggest exporter of textile waste — were crammed full of goods due to the coronavirus crisis. So full, in fact, that they had stopped accepting donations. Millions of tonnes of used clothing now pile up in anonymous warehouses, waiting to be sold on or incinerated.

Meanwhile, landfills across the globe are overflowing with plastic scrap. Slow markets and
plummeting oil prices are bringing recyclers to their knees. In the Philippines, Vietnam and India, as much as 80% of the recycling industry had ceased operations by mid-2020. At the same time, the demand for single-use plastics has soared—in some countries, like Thailand, by a staggering 15%.

All of this fits in with the idea that the current pandemic is leading to a heightened waste crisis. Everyone knows that the way we treat products today is downright shameful, but our behaviour hasn’t changed. Things are worse than ever. Every year, we dump no less than 2.12 billion tons of waste worldwide. If we continue like this, this number is set to rise by around 70% by 2050, with enormous social, economic and environmental repercussions. So, it is time for something radically different. How we make, sell, and value things has to change dramatically. And designers have a huge responsibility in this context.

Today, the average consumer item lasts for around six months. Six months! Bear that figure in mind as you walk through your local high street, and you’ll be sick to your stomach.

We also have to face the invisible ecological disaster that is being caused by online shopping. In the last year, incredible quantities of clothing and consumables have been ordered, tried on, used, and returned with the click of a button.

In India for example, e-commerce sales skyrocketed and was set to double by the end of the year, according to local consultancy RedSeer. One reason for the exponential growth in this destructive sector? The coronavirus crisis.

Of course, the real reason behind the waste mountain is not really the coronavirus crisis at all. The pandemic is merely holding a mirror up to the huge social and ecological problems of our era. These problems are encompassed within one gigantic, systematic phenomenon to which we have been addicted for decades and which is only set to worsen in the future: consumerism. As citizens and consumers, there are little to no obstacles that keep us from buying, using and — to put it bluntly — wasting.

In this, it is not just the consumer who bears the guilt but also the policy-maker, the producer, and the designer. The visionary Canadian designer Bruce Mau summarised it nicely: “Design got us into this mess, now it needs to take us out of it.”

As a designer myself, I find it tremendously painful to see how we, as a society, treat products and raw materials. This has to change! And I have to take some responsibility, too. Historically, it is designers who have facilitated this over-production, over-extraction and consumption, while encouraging a never-ending search for innovation.

The ‘seductive power of design’ is a well-known phenomenon in the industry. You can use design to tempt people; for better, or for worse. The fact that designers have contributed towards the breakneck speed of the fashion industry (chains like H&M renew their collections every 6 weeks!), or a rampaging branding industry built on disposable packaging, single-use products and convenient return schemes, cannot be justified.


As an industry and creative community, we have to roll up our sleeves and change. Designers are uniquely positioned to transform how and what things are made of. A growing number of creatives have already taken an active role in the transition to a circular economy.

There are plenty of good examples. Like BeeConscious, a Thai company producing wraps made from beeswax-coated cotton, that can stand in for cling film and other plastic packaging for food. Or Daily Dump, an ingenious home composting innovation which helps tackle organic waste in India. Another exciting project is Sungai Watch, a river cleanup organisation in Indonesia developing custom trash barriers to prevent plastics from entering into our oceans. These initiatives give us something to be optimistic about, but we have to go further.

Now more than ever, the design community must dare to take the lead and deploy its creative potential en masse. As a leader of a design-driven organisation (What Design Can Do, ed.) I will be taking the initiative by setting up a long-term ‘No Waste’ programme in the Netherlands and other countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, India and Japan. We do this in close collaboration and with the generous support of IKEA Foundation

This all starts with a global design competition, which is open to submissions today. Designers, creative entrepreneurs and innovators—get involved! There’s no time to lose. You can submit your entry here. Deadline is April 20, 2021. Winning ideas will be made into reality with €10,000 in funding and a 12-month development programme co-created with Impact Hub. 


  1. I am all for this but I think we are missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. A Daily Dump does not set off the H&Ms. The real qs is – how much choice or influence do designers in H&M have? What would you have them do? Resign their jobs? Unless we start discussing this hard truth, we will forever be limited to feel-good competitions

  2. We all know this but it is sobering and eye-opening to have it set out so honestly. Kudos to Richard

  3. This read is forcing me to own up my share of responsibility . Finding it difficult to be honest about my incessant growing wants and their cascading impact ! But I also know that thus read will not leave me unchanged .

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