The number of tons of furniture that end up in landfills every year — approx. equal to the content of 25 Empire State Buildings (Source: Metropolis). Cheap materials and limited life span foster the increased waste in landfills. Society is trapped in an economic model of “perpetual growth” and consumerism is the fuel. Undoubtedly, a paradigm shift towards circularity is urgently needed. In this context, Jaime Salm is an actor of change that is shaking up the design industry with his green approach. In this interview, the US-based Colombian designer talks about his project MIO and shares valuable insights on sustainable design, entrepreneurship, and education for change.
Who is Jaime Salm?
Jaime, your green designs have been showcased by several influential institutions in the design field. Your work was featured in the New York Times, and it has been recognized with the Best Collection Award at the New York International Gift Fair. I would dare to say you’re a role model in the field. So firstly, how did you get into design? And what was that tipping point that made you embrace sustainability in your work as a designer?
Jaime Salm: I originally wanted to be an artist and learned about Industrial Design from a teacher in High School. It sounded intriguing, a mix of art and business as she described it. I applied to several schools in the US and ended up in a small art school called The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It turns out it was perfect timing. The department was led by very creative and influential designers and thinkers. They equated Industrial Design to “social engineering”. It was 1998, and the conversations were about environmental and social impact. It was a very advanced and very powerful way of thinking about what design should be. In a sense, my education taught me that good design is sustainable design. You cannot separate these two ideas. Sustainability is an approach to design, not a checklist. The moment we know what our impact is we need to address it in some way. These were pretty early days for the “second wave” of sustainability and CSR and they set a pretty clear path for me.
"Everything we currently call sustainability is seeking to find that balance or a correction of some kind."
Everybody talks about sustainability these days. In fact, it seems that almost everything can be labeled as sustainable to make it more appealing. What does the word sustainability mean to you? How have you integrated into your work?
JS: Sustainability in my view is our ability to transform culture, society, and the environment into a perfectly balanced self-sustaining system. Everything we currently call sustainability is seeking to find that balance or a correction of some kind. We are in a very critical juncture where the next decade will define our existence. Sustainability needs to be viewed from a systems perspective. We are constantly tackling individual pieces but often not looking at the big picture. For example, we can select materials with a lesser impact to make something, but we rarely ask the question: should this product or service even exist? As a designer we go one step further and ask: what should take its place and how do we create social and economic value?
Our business is quite unique and has allowed me to integrate sustainability into our products and those of our clients. We have worked for companies in the banking, beauty, retail, education, and government sectors. MIO operates as both a design consultancy and as a brand selling sustainable furnishings for the A&D market. In this dual role, we got to see up close how organizations address sustainability. We also got to experience those challenges firsthand. I would say the thread in all of our solutions is understanding the context of the product or company to have maximum impact in the system. This can be as banal as intelligent material sourcing and as complex as changing the culture of design inside an organization. Sometimes showing others how to reduce the impact of their organization has more impact than designing something for them. Other times it is all about quantifying the impact and helping companies measure it. This can have a profound impact on their business choices, especially now that we have become more aware of the power of information.
On your website, you say that your company’s North Star is Responsible Desire. Can you further elaborate on the concept?
JS: “Responsible Desire” is short for cultural change. Our vision is a culture that places value on social and environmental responsibility above all. We know as designers that without desire there is no buy-in, so we think that sustainable options should be the most beautiful, affordable, functional, and in the context of consumerism the most aspirational of all. We want to hijack that product lust for a good cause: Our survival on this planet.
"We have been 'educated' to consume and the product and experience cycles have become shorter."
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, around 9.8 million tons of furniture end up in landfills every year. What is your perception of the underlying causes?
JS: This is a problem that has been building up over decades. We have been “educated” to consume and the product and experience cycles have become shorter. For example, first, we got fast fashion and this has now migrated to fast-furniture. This has happened in every product category I can think of. The result of course is a lot of wasted resources at every level. We are beginning to see the roots of an experience economy where product plays a supportive role, but none of these companies are prepared for circularity. They are just using cheap, disposable products to service the desires without truly addressing needs holistically. I anticipate some of these paradigms will be broken soon, but old habits die hard, especially when they seem like tried and true formulas for established companies.
"Being a sustainable company in my view is being a company committed to environmental and social progress. There is never an end in sight to what can be improved."
I can imagine how hard it can be to combine meeting environmental needs, focusing on a user-centered design, and at the same time reducing waste. What are the challenges you face as a sustainable design entrepreneur? And how do you overcome them?
JS: The main challenge for us on the consulting side is education. We are constantly teaching organizations about their impact and the opportunities in the market. Being a sustainable company in my view is being a company committed to environmental and social progress. There is never an end in sight to what can be improved. That is very challenging for a business person to accept. Once they have a formula they want to keep making the same thing over and over indefinitely. Running the product side of MIO I understand that impulse but I know that there is always a new way of doing things around the corner that can mitigate the impact and serve the community better. As I said sustainability is a process, not a checklist.
The furnishings collection is a completely different beast. It has gone through many iterations and our focus right now is the commercial market for acoustic and ancillary products. Furnishings is a capital-intensive business so we need more growth capital. We also have plans to take larger leaps towards more circularity but we need more scale to do so. For me, 2020 was a year for wearing my business hat so to speak. I was focused on sales and on operations, maintaining things through the pandemic. 2021 is a year for big changes and we are excited about the prospects. I feel confident that by the end of the year we will be a completely different company than we are today.
The world we live in has an urgent need for truly sustainable development in all fields. In your opinion, what initiatives/projects speed up the change in the design field?
JS: I firmly believe that government and legislation need to come first for things to change. Without penalizing impact, businesses will not change fast enough for our planet to make the transition. I used to think that incentives were better, but now I think a combination of incentives and penalties is the way forward. The incentives and the penalties should be pretty significant to motivate the changes required. Even if we did this to just the top three polluting industries we could buy ourselves more runway to make the complicated changes required in more systems. This would of course affect how we operate in every field, including design. The second part of the equation from my point of view is education. Many of the political, social, and economic challenges we face today can be traced back to a lack of education. The more people we educate the better our chances. You would think this would not have an impact on my profession, but an educated customer is a very sophisticated customer, demanding something completely different. We see this now in many CSR reports, customers demanding their favorite brands do something about their impact. There are many studies that correlate education and taking steps to mitigate one’s impact.
"Make it a daily practice to refuse what is not necessary."
What would you say to people trying to live a less pollutant way of living?
JS: In the US they popularized the three R’s as a way to have less impact: reduce, reuse, recycle. I would add a fourth R in the beginning: refuse. Simply do not buy or consume unnecessary things. Make it a daily practice to refuse what is not necessary. This has the added benefit of heightening your experiences. Be mindful and aware. If you do have to buy something, then do your research. Be thoughtful and strategic with your purchases by buying responsibly made, quality goods. Always pick experiences over things for yourself and for others. Everything you do has an impact, but incremental changes in your behavior add up to cultural change.
Any particular wish for 2021? For yourself? For our world?
JS: It is rare for me to wish for things. I like to make plans! But I do wish for us to incorporate the lessons of 2020 so that we can start on a new path to a responsible, balanced, and equitable planet.
Photography Credit – Cover: Jaime Salm