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Leyla Acaroglu: a sustainability provocateur disrupts sustainability

Leyla Acaroglu considers the ways systems, sustainability and design can come together to solve Earth’s biggest problems. Through her UnSchool of Disruptive Design, this award-winning designer, social scientist and UNEP Champion of the Earth challenges the way we think about the global economy, consumption and recycling. Here, she tells us why companies are afraid to take action.

Leyla Acaroglu, a sustainability provocateur

Credit: James Duncan Davidson

You describe yourself as a sustainability provocateur. Do people really need to be provoked into acting on sustainability?

People need to be provoked to think differently about the challenges we face, and what tools and techniques we can use to redesign the unsustainable situation we’re in.

We all need to be prodded a bit to think differently about the world and our role within it. When I first came up with that tongue-in-cheek title a decade ago, it was because I was frustrated by how old-school the idea of sustainability was. I used to do talks where I would ask people for the first thing that comes to mind with the word sustainability, and most people say eco, green or recycling. These are all very old tropes that are irrelevant to the challenges we face today.

To continue prospering on this incredible planet, we need to reframe sustainability as an innovation opportunity that needs the same level of investment, commitment, intellectual capacity and ultimately R&D as any other challenge we face as a species. We need more people provoked to think about this great challenge as a significant opportunity.

When I started out some 20 years ago, as a young person passionate about this, I felt overwhelmed by the challenges and underwhelmed by the number of people participating. Since then, a lot of amazing work has been done by a lot of very smart and committed people, and the conversation is much more sophisticated, but there is still so much work to be done.

To continue prospering on this incredible planet, we need to reframe sustainability as an innovation opportunity…

What do you teach at the UnSchool? 

The UnSchool is where we teach my Disruptive Design Method to individuals and organisations. In my own journey of discovery, I felt very ill equipped to take action: I learned a lot about problems, but not necessarily the practical ways to take action and build solutions that would make a difference.

So I went on my own self-discovery and through my PhD and other work was able to experiment with some of the tactical tools that we can all use. And creativity is one of them, of course. But I also learned about systems thinking, which I think is a secret way to solve any problem and understand the way the world works and our relationship to the world.

For me, the Disruptive Design Method is heavily focused on social and environmental issues. But it really is a problem-solving method that can be used for multiple challenges. My goal has been to create a structured framework that people can use that gets them to deeply love the problem, understand the systems and then design solutions within their sphere of influence. This way, we will have more changemakers and people who are super-motivated and equipped to take action.

Systems thinking is a secret way to solve any problem and understand the way the world works and our relationship to the world.

How can we provoke the private sector into acting against climate change?

A recent report looked at Fortune 500 companies and only 38% of them had any tangible commitments on climate change.(1) What are the other 62% doing? How on earth are these companies not having discussions about sustainability at a senior level?

I have three ‘Fs’ to explain why companies are holding back. The first is fear. Fear is a disabling force in the mind, like the fight-or-flight response. It limits creativity and thinking differently, and ultimately it stops people from doing things. Then you have fatigue. This plays out within organisations that have tried and failed. It is exhausting to maintain hope in a system that does not seem to be getting more hopeful. 

However, these barriers are easily reframed. And that's my third F: framing. Historically, sustainability and environmental issues have been framed around negativity: ‘climate change will destroy the planet’, or ‘you are a bad person for not recycling properly’. This paternalistic approach is not helpful. When has anyone ever wanted to go to the ‘everything is terrible’ party? Nobody. A healthy dose of realism is good and needed, but we must also be realistic about the fact that the future is undefined and we can all contribute to addressing these challenges. 

You want a wider systems change. Why is our current economic model so bad for the environment?

We live in a hyper-consumerist society that creates a hyper-disposable society. Most of our environmental issues are designed into the current economic system. GDP specifically assumes that there's no cost in putting waste products back into the world, and it doesn’t give any credit to secondhand goods. Some policies around carbon accounting have tried to internalise the externalities that GDP currently doesn't account for. The only way you can create continued growth [in the current GDP-based system] is to force people to produce waste or to devalue their products. Waste is thus built in, and we are all accidently perpetuating it. Even recycling is part of the cycle as it validates the production of disposable products.

Leyla petting goats

For me, the big failure here is that we created an economic incentive system that ignores a large percentage of the resources that are required – GDP does not value nature in any way – and therefore encourages losses through waste – which is what we're trying to rectify in the circular economy.

We can learn so much from nature…. And it turns out that over a few billion years, it has become smart at solving problems.

What do you think is making it difficult to establish that circular economy?

I have just written about this practice called wishcycling, which is where you don't know whether something is recyclable, but you want it to be, so you put it in the recycling anyway, and that passes the burden of dealing with that waste on to the recyclers.

Our desire for something to be recyclable is beautiful, but it has been absolutely depreciated by a significant underinvestment in the technology that allows products and complex plastics to be recycled. When people learn about this, they freak out, and you end up with the painful psychological impact of putting things into general waste.

What inspires you to keep going?

We can learn so much from nature. Nature is where we come from, and we put it in our bodies every day. And it turns out that over a few billion years, it has become smart at solving problems.

We are looking to use sustainability as a pathway to regeneration where we learn how to give back more than we take, because everything in nature is designed to create new life. I lived on a farm for three years, learning how to be a farmer and to work within natural systems. I found that even in death or something not surviving, it contributed to the success of the rest of the system. There is no waste in nature, just regeneration.

When I think about product design or any of these big problems we face, I consider how each part of a system can give value back, even myself. Nature is not just an inspiration, but an educator as well.