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The Problem with Single Serve Design

Two years ago I got married, and my husband and I had to figure out what we were going to keep and what had to go — everything we had was not going to fit into our new life or our one-bedroom apartment (of course, it was all his stuff that had to go).

However, after some additional compromising (thank you, pre-marital counseling), we decided I had some things that were not essential for our new, combined household. Part of that purge was 30 pounds of clothing and my Ikea dressers with the sagging bottoms (you all know what I am talking about). As the stuff piled up, I couldn’t help but question why I ever bought any of these things. All of it was falling apart, and most of the clothing I only wore a handful of times. I realized I didn’t care about any of this stuff — it literally held zero value for me. I was asleep in making responsible design choices for myself.

I needed a wake-up call. This lightbulb moment catalyzed to evaluate the intersection between design and consumption and led me to question how I could be a more responsible consumer and designer.

As consumers, we value style, low-cost, convenience. We’ve created a market and design culture where quantity is valued over quality, and our treasures have short shelf lives — this is what I call single-serve design. It’s a linear approach where the value of design depreciates quickly and is thrown away even quicker.

We see evidence of single-serve design in fashion, furniture, and architecture. Fast fashion chains like Forever 21 and H&M are packed to the ceilings with low-cost, disposable clothing. After a couple of wears, that ironic t-shirt you had to have makes its way into the dumpster or a thrift store bag to make room for the next clever slogan. According to a 2013 article from USA Today, Americans throw away 70 lbs of clothing per person annually. And for those of us who donate our clothes to second-hand stores and organizations, there is less than a 20% chance that donated clothing will actually make it to the floor of a second-hand shop [The Atlantic]. Many of these pieces are down-cycled or shipped to developing nations, both of which create an incredible amount of energy waste. Additionally, second-hand shops often throw away the overwhelming amount of product received, sending donated pieces out the back door to the landfill.

When it comes to furniture, IKEA is the largest retail furniture provider in the world — and its stores have been designed to keep that status. They’ve curated an experience for maximum consumption, including a café for us to carb up before hitting the marketplace. However, as Ikea floods the market with fast, low-cost furniture, landfill waste is piling up in record numbers. In the United States alone, furniture accounts for 9.8 million tons of landfill waste every year [Reuters, 2011]. Let’s be honest — are any of us really going to repurpose a table that is $7.99 when we can just buy a new one?

The scale of these problems may seem insurmountable, but design solutions are within reach. The closed-loop approach imagines enduring value beyond the Day One purpose of objects. The entire life cycle of an object is designed to minimize or eliminate waste.

The architectural term for the waste of our American magnitude is “brownfield.” Brownfields are single-serve buildings or sites abandoned of value and purpose. They are contaminated locations that create black holes in our suburbs and cities. In fact, the EPA estimates there to be 480,000 brownfields in the US alone. They are former industrial sites, gasoline stations, fracking sites, and landfills. They are the disposable, fenced-in boarded-up sites in your neighborhood that have been sitting vacant and undeveloped for years.

Brownfield sites are opportunities for us to choose to consume and create differently. For these sites to be redeemed, they must be resurrected. The contamination must be mitigated and cleared. This is not convenient, it is not fast, and it is not cheap. It demands a reframing of our values. For developers, entrepreneurs, and non-profits, choosing brownfield redevelopment blesses communities blighted by these sites and can facilitate more robust relationships with federal and local representatives. 

By participating in the resurrection of these sites, we can be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem.

I invite all of you to join me in asking, “How can I be a more responsible consumer and designer?” Together we can shift the cultural landscape away from disposable to enduring value.