Material Literacy: Why we need to rethink language to survive the climate crisis


This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.

Read anything about the ongoing climate breakdown and you’ll invariably stumble upon the idea of sustainability, a term that seems to be in use across every single discipline and industry going. Everyone wants to know how they can be sustainable, and it’s something I’m asked time and time again.

Luckily for us at Ma-tt-er, materials are the key component. They are the foundation of everything that exists on the planet, from experimental one-offs to mass-manufacturing, the local to the global, the handmade to the machine-generated, the ephemeral to the eternally enduring.

Working with materials in a truly sustainable manner means that we can create a positive impact across society, the environment, policy, and economics. Fundamentally, it is about achieving an equilibrium between the planet and its people.

For a long time, serious study of materials had been largely consigned to academia and the sciences, but it is now a subject being explored beyond those remits. With Ma-tt-er, I wanted to create a place in which materials and their designers could be understood as the societal glue which hold industries together. After all, everything is made of something, right?

That means, to Ma-tt-er at least, that we all need an understanding of how things are made and where they come from. This knowledge can then inform our choices and lifestyles, allowing us to make decisions which are rooted in an interest in crisis aversion.

We believe that knowledge of this kind needs to be presented and communicated in as clear a manner as possible, knowing that while the language used in academia and the sciences is often incredibly precise, it can feel a bit distant from the world most of us live in.

Our practice relies on a simple methodology. Put simply, everything is channeled through a three-stage process.

We consider the “identity” of the material first. This allows us to change the way we categorise materials; no longer understanding them as physical types, we’re interested in emotional and functional qualities. Rather than asking if something is made of glass, plastic or metal, we think about whether it’s soft, warm, flexible or transparent. This allows us to produce a more sustainable outcome by immediately introducing materials into the design process.

Then we think about lifecycles: we understand where raw materials come from, how they’re currently being used, how they will go on to degrade, and whether or not there’s a potential for reuse. Having this in mind means we can consciously try to ensure that the cycle continues for as long as possible.

Lastly, we think about the application of a given material. Some are great for longevity, others are more modular and versatile. It’s a systems-based approach that showcases how a single material can be applied across many different disciplines just by altering the way that it’s being processed.

This three-pronged approach sees us changing the way we use language around materials (which affects the immediate future), informing ourselves of behavioural change (informing the near future) and ultimately altering the systems used to turn materials into things (which looks deep into the future).

The journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot believes the hoary adage that in the West we’re “materialistic” to be a fallacy. “We are not,” he writes, “materialistic enough. We have a disrespect for materials. We use it quickly and carelessly. If we were genuinely materialistic people, we would understand where materials come from and where they go to.”

To me, that sums things up. A material-literate society is a sustainable, responsible society. Not only would there be an understanding of the provenance, lifecycle and issues surrounding various materials, but we’d be able to grasp the how’s and why’s of manufacture, alongside material characteristics. This would help us understand how sustainably viable individual materials are – whether it’s down to its geographical location, how abundant it is, how it’s harnessed and the potential of it.

To get to that stage, however, a commonly used and widely understood vocabulary around sustainability and responsibility needs to be in place.

Misinterpretation – however innocent or well-intentioned it may be – ultimately leads to a sense of “greenwashing” in which serious, important, vital concepts (concepts used to explain and explore the very things which could help us as a planet keep under the temperature increases which we know could be the beginning of a very real extinction event on Earth) end up being fodder for marketing.

The fact is, this is one crisis we can’t buy our way out of. And that means that issue of clear communication during this crisis needs to be of primary importance. Now, I’m not saying that we have all the answers at Ma-tt-er, but I wanted to offer a few explanations of terms that creatives might have read and not quite got to grips with.

Biodegradable: A material which has the ability to be broken down into non-harmful substances through natural processes. The time frame taken for materials with this capacity varies dependent on the perishability of the material itself.

Bioplastic: Plastics which fall into this definition exist on a spectrum ranging from fossil-fuel and biologically based plastics that are biodegradable to biologically based plastics that are not biodegradable.

Waste: A term that means unwanted or unusable and a substance that is discarded or disposed of and has no use whatsoever. This is not the case, as we are most definitely seeing a surge in the amount of “waste” being utilised for so many uses. I prefer to use the term “surplus” which gives this material a sense of value and purpose.

Whole Systems Thinking/Approach: Not leaving anything behind. Meaning that every single part of the material system has been considered and has been utilised to its full potential. A more holistic way of considering and applying a material, whereby each and every single component of the material is being harnessed, which in turn has an impact on society, policy, the economy and environment.

Surplus: Something that produces in excess of what is required. Within materials thinking and making, there is a resurgence in considering use for overlooked material resources, resulting in new applications for otherwise unused leftovers and waste.

Sustainability/responsibility: In terms of materials, sustainability is a method of using a resource in moderation in order to enable continual reuse, and refrain from damaging surrounding ecological and social landscapes. With regard to systems, to be sustainable is a measure of whether an action or process can indefinitely keep going. Responsibility is a term I prefer to use, as sustainability can often feel like it’s up to someone else. Responsibility feels a bit more personal and achievable but with the same principle as sustainability.

With an understanding of material literacy, perceptions will naturally shift and the understanding will reach the wider public. The need to protect the planet and the people is not simply a belief held by environmentalists; it is imperative for survival and needs a larger collaborative effort.

These basic principles will hopefully prioritise thought and action in tandem, which will lead us to a more sustainable, and ultimately responsible, society.

Seetal Solanki is the founder and director of Ma-tt-er and author of “Why Materials Matter: Responsible Design for a Better Future”.

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