Yves Béhar by Xerxes Cook

A founding member of the Cradle to Cradle Innovations Institute, Yves Béhar is one of the most celebrated product designers working today.

The design brains behind One Laptop Per Child (which has put three million $100 laptops in the hands of children across the world), Yves’ company fuseproject is also responsible for designing recycling systems for Coca Cola, wearable technology for Jawbone, and perhaps the most high profile Cradle to Cradle product to date; Puma’s Clever Little Bag — a biodegradable shoebox with a handle that negates the need for a store to issue the customer with yet another piece of packaging (ie, a plastic bag).

We’ve had quite a lot of focus on Cradle to Cradle within this edition of Ever Manifesto. How did you initiate Puma’s Clever Little Bag, and what did you learn along the way? The Clever Little Bag was a tremendously challenging product. It took two and a half years to see it go from intent and idea to a product in stores. And it’s incredibly successful in the sense that people of every age all around the world really connect with it — they see the difference immediately, they experience the outer box of the shoes differently, and they remember it. I think about 80, 90 million pairs of shoes are sold in the Clever Little Bag a year, so it was very difficult as it had to be global. It had to work for the retailers themselves, who have to run downstairs, get five boxes and run back up from the storeroom to the front of the store. It had to work with the manufacturing plants, which are on every continent in the world. And it had to work for the customer. The combination of all these elements made it complex to satisfy everyone, especially when it had to also be low cost. So it took a while to get it out there. In the end it was the decision of the then CEO to really make a statement — to show in actuality how to reinvent part of the world of fashion and stick with it. And I have to say, I feel there are very few actual examples of sustainability in fashion that people experience every day. It’s very surprising to me that with a progressive mindset and a finger on the pulse, the style and fashion industry hasn’t realised how compelling it is for people to have sustainable solutions in their lives.

As a designer, how did the Cradle to Cradle manifesto affect your approach? I think the reason why the book affected me deeply is because it wasn’t a depressing view — the statistics can be depressing. The impact chemistry has had on the world and on people can be depressing. But the solution isn’t depressing. And I think that’s really important, because entrepreneurship and thinking about innovation have to come from a positive spirit. They have to come from hopeful energy, as you can’t think of new things from a negative perspective. So in many ways it continued to spur the notion that I could look at the world in a way that is a world of possibilities. And I could forgive myself for not being perfect, but every step I take could be progress — a step towards a better product.

The statistics can be depressing, but the solution isn’t.

One Laptop Per Child

While clean water, food, shelter and clothing are fundamental needs, education is also a top priority for the developing world. With the understanding that knowledge is power, chief designer of One Laptop Per Child, Yves Béhar created a computer that is portable, rugged and inexpensive: the XO laptop. Over 3 million children and teachers around the world use an XO laptop today — exploring, creating, sharing and connecting to the world. Government and ministries of education are working together with One Laptop Per Child to give their future generations opportunities for growth that have not been previously imaginable. This year, the Rwandan government recognised the effort by putting XO laptops on the country’s 500 franc bill.

In evolutionary biology, there’s a theory that during times of punctuated equilibrium — a disruption to the natural balance of an ecosystem — that organisms experience a spontaneous evolutionary leap in order to address this imbalance. As a designer, where do you think the next stage of our development and use of technology will take us? I think designers and entrepreneurs not only have a responsibility, but also an opportunity because the change will come from us creating the next compelling solution that’s going to address the imbalance you describe. I see so much pent-up demand across the world for these types of solutions. So many people are ready to switch, but they’re not given an opportunity to do so. The alternatives are either too expensive or require too much extra work. And you can’t really blame the public for not adopting more sustainable solutions if they’re more expensive or if they’re a burden in their lives. It’s really our jobs as designers and entrepreneurs to give these solutions.

You could say that currently the burden lies with the customers, but the responsibility lies with the brands. It’s interesting how you’ve challenged the CEOs of big corporations who didn’t understand that there’s a return on their investment in good design. At forums like Davos, you’ve brought to their attention that companies with good business practices are more successful with their customers. Most large companies simply don’t have access to someone who will push or challenge. They’re doing things partially by habit, or there’s no reward system for risk or for failure, and they have responsibility to shareholders [to deliver profits]. But when the opportunity presents itself, I think most CEOs will explore it. I do think transformation is possible, and I believe in the next 20 years, every business and every service is going to have to recast and recreate itself in ways that meet what customers want, which are more sustainable ways of living and consuming. And by doing so, it will save ourselves, both in the consumer environment and it will also bring their industry into a new place. Businesses need to be retooled every few years based on change.

Do you believe we are experiencing an environmental crisis? I think we’ve been in a state of crisis for a while and that we’re coming into a partial consciousness about it. I do think that it’s not a matter of stopping consumption, as economically I don’t think that’s viable. But I do think that it’s smarter consumption — or more conscious consumption — that’s absolutely necessary today. Plastic bottles are something we should never use unless we’re crossing the desert or very thirsty while on the go. I’m surprised by how little breakthrough there has been in rethinking the plastic bottle; we banished plastic bottles from our office now five years ago, and I’ve never heard any of our clients coming in saying, ‘Rather than water in a pitcher, I want my own plastic bottle.’ And now we give them water, sparkling from the SodaStream machines we’ve designed. If they want a soda, we can even make it right there.

Every designer seems to be obsessed with designing a chair, and you’ve created a few yourself — yet aren’t there enough in the world already? I used to have this conversation with Ross Lovegrove [a celebrated industrial designer who has worked with Sony in creating Walkmans and in the design of Apple computers]. And I think as designers, our answer is that the world doesn’t need another chair the same way a chair was built in the 1950s or ’60s — which is pretty much the kinds of chairs we consume. The world needs a chair that is lighter, uses less materials, less resources and takes up less room when it’s shipped. And this is how the Herman Miller SAYL Chair was conceptualised. It has a smaller carbon footprint with a Cradle to Cradle certification; it weighs half as much as a regular chair and takes up half as much volume. And is it perfect? Absolutely not. Is it better than most office chairs out there? Absolutely. Is it a lot better to build millions of SAYL Chairs than the stuffy, full-of-toxic-foam chairs of yesteryear? Absolutely, as you’re still going to have to put butts in chairs to have people work in offices. And they’re gonna have to be very comfortable, as you don’t want to hurt humans. So through Cradle to Cradle, I can look at change and innovation in a way that gets us a step closer to a better world.

The world doesn’t need another chair just the way a chair was built in the 1950s — but the world needs a chair that is lighter, uses less materials, uses less resources, and takes up less room when it’s shipped.

As a designer, how you do approach the every day? For me, I don’t want to walk the world with a sense of defeat. One of the things that has worked the best for me was to take on projects that were difficult, that weren’t easy, that were humble like the shoebox. Most designers would want to design the shoe itself and see people wearing their own designs, but a shoe line is something that lasts only a season or two. Looking at humble problems, but designing them with a worldview and radically rethinking them, is sometimes a good place to start.

I’m always going to want things for myself, but then I get more and more conscious that the things I want can also benefit others.

And what gives you hope? People. The human spirit will eventually get to the right place. I think better choices is what is lacking — but there’s no lack of direction where people want to move towards. For me, it’s a very simple equation: If there’s will and direction, then as a human species we’re going to be innovative and creative enough to set ourselves on the right path. We’re always going to be selfish, and we’re always going to be altruistic. I’m always going to want things for myself, but then I get more and more conscious that the things I want can also benefit others. It’s a balance.

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