Sophie Thomas at TEDxBerlin

Discussing how designers can use their skills for a sustainable future.

Posted: 15 May 2024

How designers can use their skills for a sustainable future

“How can we break the wasteful cycle of extraction, production, consumption then disposal? Who can change the complex, global supply chains and systems? What role does the designer have and can we eliminate waste from the design process? These are the questions I have been trying to answer for the past 25 years.”

Sophie Thomas, Thomas.Matthews’ Founding Director and Senior Director for Useful Projects, has been a campaigner and leader in sustainable and circular design for nearly 30 years. Her passion for garbology (exploring human behaviours by digging in the trash), and belief that waste is a design flaw started early and still drives her curiosity and she is often found peering into waste bins.

The role of a designer

As a designer working in the built environment, she is continuously caught between wanting to create beautiful things that people want and knowing the huge impact involved in the process of extracting, processing, making and selling stuff – not to mention the impact when these creations become waste.

But, where do we start when we consider how to design things better for the future? What role do designers have, and how can we break our current wasteful, linear systems? Sophie tackles these questions through creative curiosity, design thinking and by investigating current waste streams, all to demonstrate that waste is a design flaw.

“Through my journey as a designer, I have brought campaigning into the studio. From using design as a tool for activism, to inspiring behaviour change and communicate sustainable living. And now my passion and guilt has pushed me from wanting to do something about it to action.”

Sophie is the only designer in the UK to be honoured as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management. In 2012, she set up The Great Recovery project which took over 1,000 designers to waste sites to see where their products die, and to rethink design using circular principles. Since then, she has worked with industry to look at how everything – from oil rigs, sofas, shoes, and mobile phones – can be designed for reuse.

Sophie Thomas presented at TEDXBerlin on the role of designers in sustainability

Designing for reuse

By working with businesses to radically reconsider material use through design, research, and innovation, she co-founded the climate-tech venture studio, etsaW in 2022, supporting and building innovation in the transformation of waste streams into new materials and helping set up new businesses that exploit their use.

“I do believe it is possible to design for circular and recovery, but we need politicians to legislate for it, we need investors to fund it, we need the infrastructure to enable it, we need the citizens to demand it, and we need the clients to require it. But with that change of mindset and that approach, and a very very good set of screwdrivers, I think it can be done.”

View Sophie’s TEDx video in full on YouTube.

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