On the sustainability of cardboard furniture Apl. Prof. Dr. Christa Liedtke / Design and Art / Wuppertal Institute Photo: Friederike von Heyden

"When Functionality and Creativity Meet Acceptance, Sustainability Emerges

Associate Professor Dr. Christa Liedtke on cardboard furniture and sustainable thinking by Berg-based companies.

What does it actually mean when we talk about sustainable products, and why is the concept of sustainability becoming increasingly important? Wikipedia talks about a ""principle of action for the use of resources, in which a lasting satisfaction of needs is to be ensured by preserving the natural regenerative capacity of the systems involved (especially living beings and ecosystems)"". One of these sustainable products, which seem to meet the spirit of the times and appeal to more and more users, is cardboard furniture, which can certainly keep up with our classic ideas of furniture. Made of corrugated cardboard and recycled paper, this furniture is convincing because of its stability, while its recycled content in production and also in disposal is very high. And that brings us back to sustainability.

The ecological backpack

Christa Liedtke, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Design and Art and Head of the Sustainable Production and Consumption Department at the Wuppertal Institute, says: ""In order to achieve a greenhouse gas-neutral and resource-efficient society in the medium to long term, a comprehensive 'dematerialization' of production and consumption is necessary - creating more benefit with less is the art of the future and transformative design task. In this way, products and entire service systems such as our mobility will become 'resource lighter'. For example, they can be used longer and better, recycled and reused, repaired, and much more. This is also a question of design."" Cardboard furniture is sustainable, he said, if it saves resources and energy, is durable and functional. ""Utility paired with resource conservation are the keys to a sustainable economy and a good life."" This, he said, can only be achieved by combining sustainable production methods with consumption methods - making design, as a mediator between the two worlds, a crucial factor in transforming and shaping our future. ""If I start from a utility foundation, cardboard furniture must be comfortable and aesthetic and fulfill its function; I should enjoy using it and trying it out,"" says Liedtke. ""The functionality and aesthetics are the most important requirements to create acceptance. That's sustainable, from my point of view! Providing benefits with as few resources as possible, in other words, contributing to the decoupling of wealth creation and resource consumption. A multifunctional design is conceivable for cardboard furniture and this is especially important in areas such as trade fair construction, exhibitions or events."" As with any design task, many aspects have to be right, including the design of furniture, in order to create a sustainable product. Ideally, he says, it is possible to create something from few resources that will be used with pleasure for many years, communicates value and forms of use, and whose raw materials are preserved for further cycles of use.  ""Materials made from renewable resources are an important component in the construction and furniture sectors. Wood and also paper/cardboard are options that I can make durable and repairable, and when the use is lost, return them to the cycle."" Regardless of competing products made of metals or textiles that could function in the same way as cardboard in terms of shape or manner, in the end it always comes down to minimizing the ecological backpack and avoiding hazardous materials, he said. This also includes minimizing the supply of fresh fibers as much as possible and making the best possible use of the fibers available in the system over multiple cycles. ""At the Wuppertal Institute, we speak here of 'Material Input per Service Unit'.  In simplified terms, this means we are looking at the question of how much material we have to use in order to achieve a certain service. We call this the ecological rucksack of a product or a service - it is smaller the lower the material input in the life cycle and the higher the number of service units. Secondary fibers save a lot of energy, wood, logistics, water and reduce the burden on the forest. Due to this lower material input (MI) and due to durability, robustness and multi-functionality, a high number of service units (high S) can be retrieved. An important sustainability aspect here is recycling issues."" Liedtke therefore asks, ""How much recycled material can be used? Will the material remain available for further applications? And how must the product be designed so that it is actually reused, i.e., disposed of properly?""

Designers can always rethink

Cardboard furniture plays a major role in the trade fair and exhibition sector, for example, but young people are also increasingly turning to this potentially more sustainable and, above all, lightweight material in their private lives. ""Designers* can always rethink,"" says Liedtke, because society is actually always changing and moving. ""Needs and requirements are constantly changing. And designing those in harmony with nature and communicating what's in those products, that's then also a form of enabled acceptance."" Cardboard products can tell different stories; the same material can tell us that it's a cheap stopgap or that it's the more resource-efficient version of its competitor products.  ""I grew up in the generation where homespun wool socks and eco-slippers conveyed an ecological attitude,"" says Liedtke. ""Today, in terms of design, we are at home in all product and service worlds and on the move - that's an inexhaustible potential for redesign that we and people enjoy. So we need a lot of designers and their skills to leverage this potential for sustainability,"" she says. People have always helped tell the story of sustainability through their attitude and a certain habitus. With regard to cardboard furniture, there is also an interesting development, because a society can also appropriate material and make it accessible to many people in real laboratories.
The trade fair and exhibition sector, for example, has also learned something new. In the past, vast amounts of material were regularly disposed of. ""For a few years now, people have also been designing exhibition systems and furniture that can be folded up, quickly assembled and disassembled, and that fulfills functions, that can serve as a shelf and as an armchair at the same time. With this flexibility, of course, the product for sale is then showcased."" The material thus takes a back seat, and cardboard is excellently suited to this, he says, because it can be used to design and experiment with very different shapes.

Products must explain themselves

Sustainability and environmental awareness are more important today than ever before. But how do I now inform people without constantly lecturing them? ""It has to be woven into the context of the products, how I can use a product or service and how it may or may not be more sustainable,"" says Liedtke, because no one wants to be constantly educated in every area of life. ""A product has to tell itself, its value proposition and story, in its function and handling. Consumer information must embed itself in the functional process so that it can support decisions to act. That's a basic constellation that we should promote much more, to make information accessible so I don't have to read instruction manuals or thick books to understand sustainability value.""
This also includes simplifying the process of separating products, he said, because users sometimes don't get through how to separate and dispose of which material. ""Design can develop completely different solutions here that have less impact on the environment and households and direct the focus back to the high resource losses in production and consumption, such as food waste or the short lifespan of furniture, textiles and information and communication technology,"" the scientist demands.

The search for sustainable corporate strategies

For production and consumption patterns to change, companies are needed to develop and offer appropriate products and services. In advertising and public relations, many companies interested in sustainability and climate neutrality were already informing their partners and customers, Liedtke explains. ""There are also opportunities to find out about companies that are participating in the German Sustainability Code or EMAS certification. The German Sustainability Award also shows which companies and municipalities are already committed. Since 1984, the network for sustainable design B.A.U.M. e.V. has been promoting environmentally conscious business with now over 700 members - there are many such good examples. Many companies are also active in the Bergisches Städtedreieck - Neue Effizienz, Bergische Universität, FGW and our institute, among others with bergisch.metall. The Circular Valley initiative also shows how the region is setting itself up and constantly reinventing itself. These are just two examples of really many in the region. That's what makes research here so interesting, because development and implementation are close together!"" Contacts with associations and entrepreneurs who initiate corresponding developments have existed in her department at the Wuppertal Institute for a long time, and there are also corresponding initiatives in the skilled trades sector. ""In the meantime, there is a lot of movement in the system,"" the researcher is pleased to say.

Tracking supply chains

Sustainable behavior also always requires prior sustainable thinking, and that is one of the biggest challenges, Liedtke knows. ""From my perspective of sustainable production and consumption, I can say that often only one segment of the social or economic processes is looked at, namely one's own, but not the entire supply chains."" That's also a lot of work that can't be expected of every company in all its differentiation, he said, but a check of that is feasible in any business. ""We notice that, for example, there are excellent companies in the metalworking and metal processing sector in the Bergisches Städtedreieck, but also in other sectors, which are already very well positioned in terms of efficiency, have the processes very well under control and have also been working on them for many years."" It is important to reach out to those who have so far paid very little attention to this issue. Liedtke sees that as one of her most important tasks if circular systems are to be integrated, saying, ""The challenge for the future is to communicate that every single company can make an important contribution in the sustainable value creation process, and we need every one of them on board, otherwise it won't work. He also says the EU taxonomy is a challenge for SMEs to actively use for positioning and profiling. ""But it wouldn't be doing research on sustainable production and consumption if it didn't also focus on households and consumers* - who play an important role in shaping and driving demand for sustainable products and services from the region for the region.
Asked about a Bergisch example of a successful sustainable product, the scientist concludes, ""The Schwebebahn, which has provided us with congestion-free mobility for years, comes immediately to mind, doesn't it?"" The Wuppertal landmark is certainly a perfect example of sustainable mobility.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 02/03/2022)

Dr. Christa Liedtke is head of the department ""Sustainable Production and Consumption"" at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy and adjunct professor in the Faculty of Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal."

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