Nils Bader It's actually twenty past twelve
nomad met with the world-renowned expert on sustainable strategies and
founder of the Green Product Award, Nils Bader, in Berlin.
Our discussion covered the stamina required to successfully implement
sustainable ideas, as well as how China has undergone a radical
change almost without us noticing–from environmental polluter to future
leader in the fields of sustainability, innovation and design.
For 11 years Nils Bader ran a thriving agency in Berlin until at the age of 40 he suddenly began to question whether that was all that life had in store for him. He decided to take a break planning to travel across eastern Asia taking in its bustling cities along the way and find the time to relax properly before spending some time at a silent monastery. However in reality Bader’s trip turned out quite differently.
He was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of plastic refuse strewn about the beaches of Koh Lipe, a small island located in the Strait of Malacca. The paradise he had set out to discover no longer existed.
Back in Berlin, Bader set up a sustainability agency by the name of White Lobster before founding the Green Product Award, an international competition which recognises innovative sustainability solutions. nomad sat down with Nils Bader to find out what motivates him and what ‘sustainable’ actually means today.
IT’S ACTUALLY TWENTY PAST TWELVE
White Lobster’s Berlin office at 23-24, Tempelhofer Ufer. The grey stone building dating back to 1919 still exudes a sense of Wilhelmine order today. In contrast, Nils Bader’s office gives the impression that he has only just moved in. On the right, behind a glass display case, is a 1950s couch buried under stacks of paper and boxes, while a moped helmet adorned with racing stripes has made its home on his desk.
“It’s not five to twelve, it’s actually twenty past!” says the 47 year-old with the neatly parted grey hair and black T-shirt emblazoned with Darth Vader’s instantly recognisable masked face. Things could be so different, he reflects. More efficient. More sustainable. By making use of bioplastics, for example—plastics produced from biomass rather than crude oil. Yet even the best ideas fall flat without appealing products to back them up. “For this reason, I always offer the same advice: design something which showcases new materials in action.” As an example, Bader grabs a pair of sunglasses from a shelf: nylon-based bioplastic, 3D-printed, custom-made, single-piece production, in a choice of colours, featuring a slightly slimmer sidearm design for flexibility. Projekt Samsen was developed in Berlin. The elegant design is created using a manufacturing technique which produces next to no waste. Each frame is manufactured layer by layer using 3D printing. A laser precisely heats tiny plastic balls to produce a stable form. Any leftover material can simply be re-used the next time. Projekt Samsen is a monoframe, with no hinges or any other materials. Restricting components to a single material makes it easier to recycle in the future.
Bader is of the view that the eyewear is primarily a vehicle to highlight the organic-based plastics technology behind its development. A shift towards a more sustainable world will also require appropriate ambassadors who attract wider attention to this noble pursuit. It’s possible to spend a long time reading up on regulations, smarter logistics and yet more technology—yet the actual key to change is, if anywhere, in good design: design which not only focuses on aesthetics, but takes manufacturing processes and future recycling of the materials used into account at the same time. However, the process always starts with aesthetics. Bader explains, “Aesthetic quality plays a major role. Without an appealing design, you run the risk of potential consumers simply ignoring your product.” This applies to more than merely end-customers. The economics graduate adds with a grin that if the design is right, “marketing managers will snap up a new product without even noticing that it costs 30 percent more! Design changes everything.”
If, then, design can be said to open doors, it must also hold true that design acts as something of a mastermind in the background. The figures speak for themselves. “Design accounts for 80 percent of a product’s overall environmental impact”, says Bader. “It determines production methods, the materials used, the packaging and therefore the carbon footprint from transport, the type and length of use, repairability, and disposal or secondary use.” And when we take a closer look at this kind of life cycle—as the industry calls it—it is striking just how little of it has filtered down into day-to-day life. Of course, there are recycling centres, but these remain a nascent concept. Nevertheless, Bader remains optimistic: “When we talk about transition design, by which I mean the huge success story which has altered societal processes, then the obvious example today is the ‘sharing economy’. It’s something that nobody would have anticipated even five years ago.”
SUSTAINABILITY—A HUGELY COMPLICATED ISSUE
Which companies promote genuinely sustainable practices in their operations? A question that someone with such a clear overview of the industry should be able to answer quite easily. “Oooh, tough question”, exclaims Bader before rattling off half a dozen or so firms. InteriorPark. and Craft Architects in terms of construction; as far as product design is concerned, Bader spontaneously mentions Valentinitsch Design from Vienna, Berlin-based Nr. 21, and Studio Montag. “Unfortunately, demand still isn’t high enough for these studios to survive exclusively from sustainable business practices.” A different picture emerges with design-led manufacturers such as Wehlers and Green Furniture Concept, which have designed their own product ranges. And then there’s fashion. But in more general terms, Bader admits, “In terms of developing and ultimately establishing sustainable business models around the world, we’re only just scratching the surface.” However, he also points out that this is a subject of ferocious complexity. What is actually the difference between greenwashing and institutionalised corporate social responsibility practices? There are obviously some social enterprises that have abandoned efforts to maximise profits. “Unfortunately, however, stakeholders in large systems often perceive change as a threat rather than an opportunity. They shut themselves off from the most self-evident innovation opportunities.”
Design is his thing. And so is sustainability. But is there any overlap between the two fields any common ground?
Nils Bader, founder of the Green Product Award, beams. “It’s finally been proven that sustainable consumption is possible”, the 47-year-old answers. “Why else would the supermarket chain Rewe be adapting its product range?” Sounds promising, at least. The economics graduate has been awarding prizes for exceptional products and services for four years. He knows that products are only as good as the history behind them. Bader is a natural communicator through and through. He claims that doing something good for oneself and for the company is just one part of it—you have to talk about it too. “Communication gets everything off the ground”, he explains. With this in mind, Bader created White Lobster, a Berlin-based agency for “innovation and communication”.
Bader moves on to discuss the three-pillar model of sustainable development: people, planet, profit. Alliteration that conceals an entire world. How can we focus on things which are in equal harmony with human beings (people), the environment (planet) and the economy (profit)? This is the basis of everything. Bader’s foremost principle is to work in cycles. “Circular thinking is extremely helpful in developing products that include fewer components, use fewer composite materials and are repairable.” Fine; this is something that we have been aware of since Wolfgang Braungart and William McDonough made waves with their Cradle to Cradle (C2C) 15 years ago. In short, our standard approach to recycling is, in actual fact, downcycling, meaning that valuable resources are wasted and even burned (“thermal recycling”, to use the technical term). Only a short time after the foundation of C2C, the first products manufactured in line with this new philosophy were launched on the market. Like the Mirra office chair, designed in 2003 by Berlin-based design agency 7.5, which claims that up to 96 percent of its components can be recovered and reused. The armrests can apparently be recycled as many as 25 times, providing the raw materials for new—armrests. The manufacturing process kept the use of toxins to an absolute minimum. The circular economy is good for the environment and for the economy. Even McKinsey, the global management consultancy firm, recognises this, and has supplied a somewhat surprising statistic: the circular economy could see expenditure on mobility, homes and food fall by up to 25 percent in Germany by 2030. McKinsey’s recent study entitled Growth Within: A circular economy vision for a competitive Europe suggests that “the German economy could grow 0.3 percentage points more per year, supported by the circular economy principle in which raw materials are distributed in line with sharing concepts and then reused for as long as possible, with waste and emissions reduced to an absolute minimum.”
A handful of major corporations have clearly already adopted this ethos. Bader explains that Würth, the giant manufacturer of screw fasteners, bolts and screw accessories, now uses an assembly system which allows components to be separated into their constituent materials, thereby making them recyclable, instead of the usual foamed-in supply lines, which become immovable fixtures in a building. “In no way is it sustainable to manufacture brand-new adapters over and over again”, Bader says, looking down at the mobile phone currently recording our conversation. “Deliberately creating waste just to make more money from new waste? That sickens me.” On that subject, what would Bader do differently at Apple if he called the shots there? The sustainability expert waxes lyrical; he would look at where the company is manufacturing and design products based on a more modular structure. “We would recycle 90 percent of the raw materials and adopt an America first approach to manufacturing and reassembly. The debate surrounding environmental pollution would be stopped in its tracks, simply because it would no longer apply to us.” Bader elucidates his vision, explaining how education and training would also be involved in this process. A huge laboratory with schools and universities. Focused on fundamental values, education and ecology. There would be an app providing project ideas for teachers. And everyone would agree: these are the good guys, they are doing something really worthwhile.
Green Product Award
The international Green Product Award competition was established four years ago. Since then the initiative has received submissions from over 40 countries.
A jury awards prizes to the best products and services in 14 categories: architecture, communication, consumer electronics, energy, consumer goods, fashion, freestyle, furniture, home accessories, kids, mobility, office, research and university.
In addition to existing products, students and inventors can also submit ideas. The best solutions then receive sponsorship.
Furthermore, the Green Network also offers the opportunity for knowledge to be exchanged between experts, designers and producers.
Chinas Sustainability Strategy
Australia’s Climate Institute which closed in 2017 reported as early as 2013, that China was one of the top three countries combating CO2 emissions whereas the USA and the EU were falling behind in that respect.
Despite once being seen as an environmental pariah, China is turning into the poster boy of environmental protection.
The development of “clean” energy is at the core of this. It has global consequences. Around 28 million vehicles were built in China in 2016, which represents approximately a third of global production. However, the world’s largest car market is now seeking to turn away from combustion engines.
In contrast, China has enormous social problems. An estimated 320 million people have no access to clean drinking water.
IDEAS CHANGE THE WORLD—SHARING THE WEALTH
Bader identifies four innovation fields with the greatest future potential: mobility, consumer electronics, architecture and nutrition. They are not necessarily restricted to established firms, more concerning start-ups and start-up networks as well as accelerator and crowdfunding platforms. “They offer a good framework. However, I’d like to see stronger and simpler consultancy support.” This is naturally the focus for the Berliner. Bader’s plan is based on change brought about by transfer of the best ideas–a process that is only feasible in networks. Award ceremonies are of particular interest here: the winners give a short presentation of their project, then the next team takes their turn. “This basically avoids any contrived form of ‘matchmaking’ because the people involved all run into each other there anyway”, Bader explains while refreshing his glass of water. All this is consistent with White Lobster’s mission statement on the Green Product website: “We see ourselves as a place, in which green Ideas are being refined and mediated, so that they can go to the market. As a networker, we are intensively committing ourselves for the best concepts, and are involved in case of success. From initial financing in Germany to licensing in Asia.”
One inspiring product is Creaper, a paper made from 50 percent grass. Several projects have emerged after four years of research: printer paper, simple organic-food packaging (in partnership with German supermarket chain Rewe)—to replace standard plastic and cardboard with their poor environmental footprint—and outer packaging (as a pilot project with DHL). “Grass-paper composites represent a kind of vision of a superfuture.” Sounds amazing, but grave misconceptions abound. Bader cites a couple of his favourites, starting with “Bioplastic? No such thing yet.” Oh, but there most certainly is! He recalls a marketing executive at a major company who objected, “Won’t it disintegrate while I’m drinking?” He provides another example: “We don’t print on eco-paper as it can damage people’s eyesight.” Bader is fighting his corner in a world dominated by prejudice and fear. Environmental protection and sustainability are still a matter of taste. Bader calls for Germans to shake off their tendency towards self-sabotage. In the Netherlands, anybody who steps up to the plate with the aim of developing sustainable solutions is feted. But here? No, Germans tend to split hairs, almost consciously trying to find fault until a product has been shot down in flames.
CHINAS GREAT LEAP FORWARD
Does this also apply to the world’s superpowers—China, for example? At an estimated GDP of $ 11.8 trillion for 2017, China might still trail in the USA’s wake in financial terms, yet the balance of power may well be starting to shift—at least in terms of environmental protection. The Trump administration in Washington D.C. has signalled its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, while China, which was the largest transgressor in all things eco-related until only a few years ago, has adopted a different course. Does this make China the foremost sustainability pioneer? “Looking at things as they stand now, absolutely not. Or not yet, anyway”, Bader explains. “However, the Chinese government has ambitious plans and is pursuing them on a grand scale.” After all, the country still suffers under the burden of massive environmental problems. According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization (Who), 665,000 people die in China each year as a result of air pollution, with a further 95,000 deaths per annum attributable to contaminated drinking water. In addition to this, the vast energy and water requirements of a constantly expanding manufacturing industry must be considered. “One of the government’s objectives is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent–45 percent by 2020”, says Bader. “If we look at the measures recently implemented in the field of mobility alone, the momentum for change is clear. In specific terms, all two-stroke engines (scooters, auto rickshaws) are now electric.” In cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, conventional new car registrations are already subject to a lottery-style application system, which can occasionally be oversubscribed by a ratio of 1:1000. In contrast, electric cars receive direct approval. “If the governmental agencies are to be believed, there are already serious plans in the pipeline to completely ban conventional combustion engines in China’s major cities.” In this instance, the only question remaining for China to answer would be: how quickly can a big enough fleet of electric cars be manufactured in order for the ban to be gradually introduced?
That all sounds great. But what’s happening in China in terms of sustainability and design? Bader pauses for thought momentarily: “Improving product quality while simultaneously reducing environmental impact is a huge goal. The key phrase here is ‘green products’”. And these are assessed just as they are in Germany. However, even in this regard China is ensuring a degree of independence from Western standards and norms and setting its own, while the government’s current five-year plan also outlines various programmes aimed at promoting green products. A total of 10,000 green products are to be identified by 2020, which will then be placed on the government’s shopping list, while 100 green industrial parks are to be constructed and 100 reference projects implemented as beacons for future developments. “The 100 green design centres will be afforded a special role in that they’re intended to provide impetus to manufacturing firms. As the event organisers of the Green Product Awards, we will inaugurate one of the first green design centres in China this December”, Bader explains.
Of course, it should not be forgotten that the Chinese government remains the largest driver of this ecological progress. However, the private economy is following suit and also playing its part, as can be seen from the rising number of innovations. In this regard, a major patent marketing company has recently opened 36 offices across China which are home to more than 2,000 employees. Companies in China operate 80 design and innovation centres. Big changes are on the way. Back in 2013, Tom Schönherr, Managing Partner of Phoenix Design, explained, “The expansion in China’s university sector and exchange programmes has seen an enormous improvement in how Chinese designers are trained. China has primarily studied German methods and teaching styles and learned a great deal in the process, which has now been applied to its own approach.” Bader can only concur: “Product quality will change rapidly. This is relevant not only in terms of the growth seen on the domestic market, but also with regard to the increasing importance of transparent supply chains on the global market.” Because, after all, these aspects of transparency and openness are a part of sustainable development as well.
On a personal level, the communications expert takes a slightly different view: “Doing something positive for myself and the company is just the beginning”, he says. “In order to get everything up and running, the concept and vision must be clearly communicated.” This also, and primarily, means visual communication and design. A friend from Koh Lipe led the way, founding Trash Heroes and recovering over 100,000 tonnes of rubbish from the sea as great raw material for products. Bader’s enthusiasm is soon palpable again: “I’d finance that kind of thing now, then round up a few designers and travel over there so that they have something that sells. Much cooler that way.” All wearing black t-shirts with that White Lobster on the front, of course.