Simple is as simple does. We live in a world that our ancestors—even our grandparents—would barely recognize. For example, my mother was born and raised on a small dairy farm north of New York City. She was a young girl during the Depression years and remembered clearly the tenor of those times. One of her jobs on the farm was to take care of the chickens.

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MEND OR MAKE DO

Chickens are surprisingly amiable animals and my mother named them and treated them as pets, but without fail, one each Sunday would be served at dinner. She would tell me as a matter of fact that they were lucky living on a farm. Her family always had enough to eat and what they didn’t grow they could barter for.

For people in the Depression, making things that lasted became a necessity.

What she left out of her stories was how close to the edge most people lived during that time; how little people had and how basic their most pressing worries were: safety, shelter, food. “Use it up, wear it out. Make do or do without” was a common saying during those years and is succinct at summing up peoples’ relationship to the goods they owned. For people of that time, making things that lasted became a point of pride, as well as a necessity.

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WASTE IN HASTE

In stark contrast to my mother’s childhood, our way of life today is defined by an incredible abundance of “stuff” that we buy, use, and toss out. Ironically, we now have a very different and an entirely new set of reasons to be frugal with the world’s resources: climate change and resource degradation.

To borrow from Thomas Friedman’s book on green issues, the world today is hot, flat, and crowded.

To borrow the title from Thomas Friedman’s book on green issues, the world of today is increasingly hot, flat, and crowded. In a sense, you could say we solved the Depression era of scarcity too well. By this I mean that we’ve figured out how to make goods cheap, abundant, and durable but to such a degree that we consume too much and in the process create incredible quantities of trash.

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BALLAD OF THE PLASTIC BAG

A grocery bag, for example, is a cheap, strong, light, amazingly compact, and durable container, and it succeeds beautifully as an engineered solution. It’s useful until it ends up in a tree. There it endures all too well and won’t go away when we want it to.

A plastic is cheap, strong, light, and useful until it ends up in a tree.

Recently, the state legislature in California debated a bill to ban plastic grocery bags altogether. It was apparently narrowly defeated because of strong lobbying pressure from oil companies and plastics manufacturers: one point for business, zero points for the environment.

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THE DESIGNER’S DILEMMA

I work as both a creative director and practicing designer at the Timberland Company and head up our green design efforts showcased via the Earthkeeper collection. Effective design has never been more challenging. We live in a world that is incredibly interlinked, complex, and dynamic—where relationships are forming and dissolving constantly. Designers have a difficult time keeping up, much less being effective. This is especially true of green design where each choice (alone and as part of a whole) affects the outcome.

We live in a world that is incredibly interlinked—where relationships are forming and dissolving constantly.

Several years ago, Timberland decided to launch an ecologically minded or green line of footwear. Like most companies engaged in creating greener products we began quite naturally by focusing hard on the variables we could reduce or remove: boosting recycled content in base materials, sourcing regionally, and choosing reduced-energy manufacture processes. In short, we pursued a strategy of reduced carbon footprint; making incremental improvements by creating less waste and making more efficient use of materials at hand.

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SMALL CHANGES, BIG WAVES

But a strategy of incremental improvement is not necessarily a powerful and resonant message with consumers. Touting 39 percent recycled content over last season’s 34 percent may be a hard-won and worthwhile step and yet, quite reasonably, will not hold the public’s attention.

A strategy of incremental improvement is not necessarily a powerful and resonant message with consumer.

Why should this matter? In the end, if I don’t persuade you to pick my shoe over the competition’s less-green offering, then all my company’s green efforts don’t mean a thing—all potential, no realization. My point here is that effective design communicates to users clearly and powerfully in a simple—and therefore understandable—manner. If you don’t, you lose at point of sale.

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GREENER FOOTWEAR

In looking to develop ever more green footwear, it would seem natural, almost a given, to throw every bit of technology available—in a shock-and-awe approach—at the problem. After all, we live in an age where science and technology have in most respects completely reshaped the world. In practice, this path does not work very well at all. Instead, the mindset I note above in talking about consumers (simple, self evident, understandable) applies to the technical design of green products, as well.

In developing greener footwear, it would seem almost a given to throw every bit of technology available.

With this in mind, at Timberland we’ve developed a product strategy called Design For Disassembly, or DFD for short. DFD means that the shoe has been constructed in a way that allows it to be taken apart after it’s useful life as a shoe is over. Why should this matter? Remember my point about plastic bags and how cheap abundance can all too easily end up as trash? Being able to take a shoe apart means that the materials the shoe is made of (if chosen carefully) have the potential for a second, or even third useful life via reuse or recycling.

MULTIPLE LIVES

In coming back to the point about simplicity, you can see that a shoe made of 30 different components that are cemented, stitched, thermally fused and chemically bonded will be, by its nature, infinitely more difficult to disassemble for reuse than a shoe made of one material.

When we get them right, simple solutions have the potential to change the game.

By staying simple in concept and expression, the DFD collection is clear to the consumer, durable and attractive in design and, most important, raises the bar on what it means to be truly green. This is not to say that the work has been easy (it hasn’t) but when we get them right, simple solutions have the potential to change the game.

+ Earthkeeper

+ Timberland