What criteria should a product meet to be truly ‘sustainable’? What will our homes look like in the future? And how should our economy change for people and planet?
In an exclusive interview with UN Environment, renowned inventor, architect and contemporary designer Philippe Starck shares his vision of what a sustainable future looks like. Starck has overseen 10,000 creations from furniture, smart thermostat, electric bikes, wooden pre-built homes to multistorey buildings in his native country of France and across the globe. Starck believes in ‘getting the most out of less’ and aims to invent objects that help improve our lives while embracing nature.
“The concept of property could disappear”
In the future, the concept of property could disappear and be replaced by a rental economy, the designer believes. “A borrower has the responsibility of returning a product. A seller does not have this responsibility—they may not care whether a product is recycled or not, for example,” Starck argues. “Our economy must be completely transformed, as our planet is being degraded at a much faster pace than we have foreseen,” he warns.
Starck also believes we can strip away “around 70 per cent” of all the furniture we currently use in our homes. “Our curtains could be replaced by liquid crystal glass, while paint could be electroluminescent,” he suggests. “We won’t be selling products as such, but rather services integrated within products.” Society may meanwhile be divided between people who choose to buy more sustainable clothes and food, and those who follow mass-scale industry.
Perhaps surprisingly, the inventor prefers to use synthetic material to natural ones for his own work, which includes the interior design of hotels such as Brach—one of his latest projects in Paris. “Synthetic materials born out of human genius almost always perform better,” he argues, reasoning that he’d “rather work with someone who uses fully traceable plastic to someone who kills trees”.
“Recycling is not a solution”
For products to be called sustainable, Philippe Starck believes they must not only use as little raw materials and energy as possible and be recyclable, they must also be “politically just” and respect gender equality. “Today, 80 per cent of products are macho,” says Starck, adding: “If it’s not macho, it won’t sell.”
Starck believes consumers must want to live with their purchases and not throw them away on a whim. He considers the fashion industry as bringing “shame” to our consumer society, given how it sets new trends several times a year. Above all, “before thinking about sustainability, the first question should be: do I really need this product?” he stresses.
When it comes to the end of a product’s life, Starck warns that “recycling is not a solution”. “Recycling was only invented so that we could continue to consume while keeping our conscience at rest. The reality is that less than 20 per cent of the materials used in consumer goods can be recycled, as it requires special conditions.”
“It is in our DNA to build and create”
“Capitalism is not suitable for the future,” says the designer. “It depends on growth and production, when we cannot produce any more.”
Starck illustrates this point by urging caution regarding alternatives to plastic. “Most biodegradable alternatives are made from things that people can eat. It is out of the question that food should be sacrificed to make a chair for example. Even for alternatives such as linseed or hemp, these take up land that could be used for growing food,” he stresses.
Regardless, we should not seek to hold back the human instinct to create, Starck believes. “The difference between us humans and other animals is that we are creators. It is in our DNA to build and create—we cannot go against this. The solution can therefore be a sort of ‘positive de-growth,’ where we decrease production while increasing creativity”.
Read the full interview with Philippe Starck in French.