Leyla Acaroglu turns environmental folklore on its head! She reveals the truth behind material science and talks about navigating a society full of fragile systems.

Interview by

Priyanka Ghosh

Large corporations have huge economic and human resource power but often, their allegiance is towards their investors, and not their customers, or the environment. It is up to the people who invest in these companies to hold the companies accountable for the cost of the profits that they make.

When Leyla Acaroglu enrolled into design school at 19, like most teenagers, she was chasing what seemed exciting to her. At the outset, she wanted to be an entrepreneur. But design, she said, sounded like a less boring career path. She never expected an experience that would alter her entire worldview, and transform her career path. It was one engineering lecture that changed it all for Acaroglu. "At the time, I had no concept of systems thinking, and the associated ways in which human choices effect, and construct these systems. Everything appeared to operate in isolation, including me," she says. That everything in nature is interconnected, giving designers the immense power to make decisions about materials and processes that have an indelible impact on people, and on the planet, was new. Armed with this awareness, she quit design school to pursue a degree in social science and environmental sustainability.

A decade or so later, Acaroglu is the founder of two design agencies, Disrupt Design and Eco Innovators, as well as UnSchool, which she describes as a rebellious experimental knowledge lab that is all about disrupting the way knowledge is gained, and shared.


Wake up call for investors, customers

Often, movements operating at the intersection of design and sustainability focus more on collective, not individual actions. There is no doubt that governments, large corporations, innovative startup ideas have the scale and distribution to penetrate social structures as well as geographies, and make change meatier, more meaningful. "Large corporations have huge economic and human resource power but often, their allegiance is towards their investors, and not their customers, or the environment. For instance, some large apparel manufacturers are fully aware of the negative social impact, and the exploitation that occurs across the supply chain but they feign ignorance because it's convenient for their bottom line. It is up to the people who invest in these companies to hold the companies accountable for the cost of the profits that they make," says Acaroglu.

That being said, the role of singular choices and actions cannot be undermined either. "Every individual in the system, no matter how many resources they have at their disposal, has the ability to influence the system," Acaroglu says. "Starting with our daily lives and the choices we make, whether it is how we spend money or the actions we take or don't take - we are ultimately influencing a bigger system. Families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and cities are all ecosystems that we belong to, and we impact," she says. But people are habituated to deflect responsibility to other parts of the system, she feels.

"I hear people complaining about government regulations and corporations rather than accepting the immediate power that they have in the choices they currently make in their lives," she says. According to Acaroglu, service providers have to take responsibility for the end of life of whatever it is they sell, rather than pass on that responsibility to someone down the supply chain.

Systems Failure

We are all caught up in what Acaroglu calls a global consumption loop that is designed to benefit our economic practices. "The GDP lens encourages and incentivizes consumption above all else. It devalues human experiences, and validates material gains instead," she says.

So, from a GDP perspective, if a hurricane decimates an entire community, it is actually good for growth because it mandates more spending; it's a perverse system that we have designed, Acaroglu points out. The GDP was developed for a specific functionality during the Second World War. It is a flawed system if applied in a wider context, she says. Other measures of assessment and success need to be added alongside GDP. "The U.N. has 17 clearly stated parameters for sustainable development that we need to take forward, like true cost accounting, sustainable development, and the circular economy movement," she says.

Lifecycle assessment, a robust scientific methodology, can be used to visualize and understand the entire life cycle of a product, and the environmental impact of how the product is used, not just what it is made of. Terms such as biodegradable and recyclable are used interchangeably to mean good for the planet. But these words describe a material's property, not its environmental benefit, Acaroglu states. They are often used by marketers to mislead consumers into thinking that because something is capable of biodegrading, it will have an opportunity to do so. Truth is, in the hands of wrong systems, anything biodegradable can have a negative environmental impact. "Building efficient systems around products we use, how we consume and dispose, using UN recommended economic measures that take into account critical livelihood measures such as pollution etc. are all perfect pieces of a puzzle - it is possible to reverse linear economic damage, but it needs political will," says Acaroglu.

From a GDP perspective, if a hurricane decimates an entire community, it is actually good for growth because it mandates more spending; it's a perverse system that we have designed.

Acaroglu loves design for the ways in which it can intervene, and disrupt. But a lot of design facilitates our modern consumer culture, and the status quo, which we all participate in through consumption, she cautions.

When the problem is as widespread, and as hardwired, the solution seems impossible. But Acaroglu insists it can be resolved through a problem-loving mind-set!

  1. We must fight the reductionist, linear mind-set that all education systems around the world insist upon. We are taught not to question but lay blame. We do not think of problems as opportunities. We are not encouraged to question how the world works, and this makes us unintentionally negative!
  2. Establish methods of peer education. Seek new knowledge. We know that our most profound learnings are through experiences. As a society, we feel that learning starts and stops within an institution! But we have to start thinking of learning as a lifelong process.

When you love rather than fear problems, you end up with solutions, and different ways of thinking. And consumption is one of the biggest problems, and design is one of the best solutions, so there are unprecedented opportunities there! Design-led disruption is possible. One needs to be able to see the parts from a bird's eye view and then have the ability to create a dynamic, holistic approach to intervene in the problem set. To shift the status quo of something, it requires a shift in our curiosity levels.

Reconciling with technological advances

That technology is an enabler is a no brainer. But, what it has undoubtedly unleashed is a choice paralysis, where people feel overwhelmed all the time with multiple options. When dualities are reconciled with, the relation between different elements becomes clearer. And for Acaroglu, when people see the relationship between things, and come to the realization that everything is interconnected, that is the game changer.

For instance, we can all agree that online retailing has made our lives more convenient, but at the cost of several neighborhood businesses. Acaroglu points to the social and environmental cost that large companies like Google and Amazon have brought upon, with driving local folks out of businesses, and instituting the shipment process, which includes using fuel, causing air traffic, etc.

In addition, automation is removing the low skill, entry level jobs because it is more economically viable, she says. "But these jobs are excellent skill builders, and I think the cost of automation will hit us on the skill level soon," she opines. Acaroglu signs off saying interesting cause and effect relationships are emerging that need investigation.

Busting two
common myths

Myths are just stories that we tell ourselves to feel better. We think RECYCLING protects the environment but does it? RECYCLING socially and cognitively validates disposability and waste creation. The issue here is DISPOSABILITY. We need to redesign the afterlife of trash.

- Leyla Acaroglu

01 Paper is better than plastic

Paper or plastic - which is better seems like an easy decision to make but when lifecycle assessment is considered, plastic shopping bags score better than their paper counterparts - and even more so than the recycled paper option! If we compare two equal volumes of plastic and paper, we see that plastic has a far worse environmental impact per unit than paper. But when we take these materials and put them to use in a functional way, we need to examine the ability of the material to deliver on its functionality, and how it exists within the world. The reality is that most paper bags are not recycled. Paper can only be recycled up to 5 times, so in the grand scheme of things, your paper bag is causing way more damage to the planet than a plastic alternative!

02 Recycling is great

Every year, over 200 billion paper coffee cups are trashed in the United States alone (source: FastCompany. com). Since paper cups are lined with a thin film of plastic, they do not fall apart the moment hot liquid is poured inside, and it is also unlikely that they will be recycled. The fact is that once they are trashed, they will end up in a landfill. Landfills are anaerobic environments - meaning that they are completely devoid of oxygen - they are tightly compacted and rather hot places where microorganisms convert the cellulose fibres in organic materials into methane, a greenhouse gas 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Takeout containers, made from virgin materials and food packaging-especially paper products-are often trashed rather than recycled, and food waste left on containers contaminates the recycling process. Drink your coffee in the coffee shop!