1. The logics of global commodity production

Understanding the commodity-machine necessitates a study of how design and the economy are intertwined. The history of planning and design runs parallel to the development of the centralised organisation of production. Many scholars have recognised the mutually reinforcing relationship between design, industry and the market: Jeffrey Meikle argues that “industrial design was born of a lucky conjunction of a saturated market, which forced manufacturers to distinguish their products from others” (39). Stuart Walker summarises the general characteristics of industrial goods as, “they are mass-produced using automated (low labour) techniques, they are energy-intensive in their manufacture and international distribution, and they are not usually repaired or repairable” (116), noting also that this has remained essentially unchanged for more than a century (113). This, however, can be considered somewhat of an understatement, considering that the commodity-machine has expanded beyond regional or national borders and replicated itself at a global scale. Cost-saving processes have meant less skilled work, more plastic injection moulding, massive numbers of units, more delocalisation towards countries with lower social, environmental and fiscal regulations, more externalisation of negative impacts, and thus “always low prices” (as the Wal-Mart slogan goes). Traces of this corporate globalisation are not difficult to find. For instance, take the smooth, polished, rounded electronic products that have become ubiquitous in the last decade. They all carry a discreet mark on their rear: “designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” This brief note on the country of origin gives a clear indication of the distinction between design and assembly, between commanding headquarters and executing sweatshops, and between a single idea and its infinite reproduction. Various indicators suggest the deep fractures that separate these places, such as income, life expectancy or ecological footprint, but they are nonetheless brought together in a highly sophisticated global network of transport infrastructure, containers, barcodes and sensors. What the label does not indicate is the origin of the resources and the numerous locations in which they are processed before final assembly. From raw materials to packaged goods, the commodity-machine is so vast that doing justice to its complexity necessitates elaborate descriptions. Stephen Petrina traces the global journey of a pair of sports shoes and the catastrophic consequences they unleash, in a paragraph that I want to quote extensively (even though only partially):

These shoes are labelled, or 'branded', and designed by a multinational corporation in the US, engineered in Taiwan and South Korea, manufactured in China, South Korea, or Southeast Asia, and mostly purchased, worn, and disposed of in North America (…). The leather upper of the shoes, consisting of about twenty parts, is typically from cows raised and slaughtered in Texas. The hides are shipped to Asia and treated through a chemical-intensive chrome tanning process, with a by-product of toxins dumped into an Asian river. The synthetic parts of the shoes are made from petroleum-based chemicals from Saudi Arabia, and distilled and cracked in a Korean refinery, with wastes again making their way into rivers (…). The shoes are assembled in a Tangerang factory or similar Asian factories. Most of the assembly is done through the labour of children and women cutting, gluing, and sewing under sweatshop conditions of high temperatures and toxic fumes from solvent-based toluene glues and paint. Their average wage is about 15 cents per hour over their 65 hour work week (…). The boxed shoes are shipped as cargo back to the west coast of the US, transported to local outlets, purchased for about $60.00 to $150.00 per pair, and worn for occasions having nothing to do with sports or training. The average pair of cross-trainers lasts less than a year and usually ends up in a landfill. (217)

There is plenty of evidence of a “crime”, but just like in a murder mystery game, uncertainty remains about who to blame and where to intervene. Is the designer the prime suspect, or should marketing be accused? Is this the result of two centuries of industrial capitalism, or the more recent neoliberal globalisation? Design studies haven’t shied away from assuming their responsibility. The history of design’s “original sin” can usually be traced back to “the emerging distinction between manual and intellectual labour in the early days of capitalism”, and to the split between conceptual creation and physical manufacture that gave birth to “the role of the ‘designer’ as a separate social being” (Ward). Murray Fraser likens this separation to a “Faustian bargain made with capitalist development in the first stages of modernism” (322). Creative skills that would in the past be dispersed among a large array of craftsmen and craftswomen were then concentrated in the hands of a few professionals. Lloyd Jones is bluntly self-critical of this specialisation: “I believe that professionalised design represents the ultimate division of labour. For by it, that creative impulse which is everyone’s birthright is stripped from daily life in production and given to a tiny elite: us” (322). However, it remains unexplained why and how the professionalisation of creativity failed to form the basis of cooperation and solidarity, but instead gave rise to the commodity-machine, manifesting in a global asymmetry in which countless workers are destined to perform unskilled tasks on factory assembly lines, physically building what a few designers envision on their drawing boards. The decisions taken on the designer’s desk have immense consequences downstream in the circuit of production; it is a common argument (although with little evidence to support it) that up to 80 percent of the environmental impact in the entire lifecycle of an object is determined at the design stage. This “lock-in effect” would seem to be the primary reason for the particular attention and responsibility given to the design stage. It is, after all, the task of the designer to narrow down the virtually endless possibilities and options in the materials and methods of production to a single final choice that is intended to synthesise all considerations. Most of the time, however, there is little deviation from already-established processes because of the lack of convenience, risk or time pressures that limit the possibilities of going “back to the drawing board”. Boehnert argues that “the practice of design, understood as a socially beneficial activity engaged with building a better world, is integrally in conflict with the design industry” (‘Design vs. the Design Industry’ 120). Alastair Fuad-Luke suggests that by controlling the designers, companies control how design practices are expressed and evolve (33), observing that designers are left with minimal agency of reform to redirect their practice towards social or environmental benefit. While designers certainly profit and prosper more than assembly workers, this does not mean that they are the ultimate decision makers, being rather tied by the briefs of their clients, bosses or managers, and occupying a strategic and yet dependent position in the hierarchical chain. Superstar designers and factory riots are two sides of the same global coin, tied to the company that employs both designers and workers. Prasad Boradkar sees a subservient role for design in the interest of capital, being to “identify opportunities where a new commodity can be inserted. (...) It certainly generates new needs adding to the proliferation of gadgets, meanwhile satisfying one primary need – that of the capitalist” (qtd. in Durling et al. 5). Like the factory worker who is “an appendage to the machine” – to borrow an expression from the Communist Manifesto – the designer is then an appendage to the commodity-machine. There will be other opportunities to question the agency of designers, both individually and collectively, but pulling apart the illusion of the designer as the sole “master” of design is a precondition to any realistic assessment of their potential agency.

If design occupies such a strategic and central position in a massive enterprise of command and control, then it would appear to many to be the right place to start correcting the destructive path of the commodity-machine. Since there are so many unsustainable elements in this process, remedies and tactics also come in various flavours, ranging from strictly technical to broadly cultural approaches (Pyla 14). Such diversity is equally observable in the names given to these practices, among which green design, eco-design, design for environment and design for sustainability are just a few.[1] Several authors have identified ethical, techno-scientific and socio-cultural tendencies in the history of sustainable design (Keitsch 180), representing “a steady broadening of scope in theory and practice, and to a certain extent, an increasingly critical perspective on ecology and design” (Madge 44).

Given that the techno-scientific approach remains the most influential among these, its main strategies of efficiency, substitution and dematerialisation merit closer attention. After all, since the commodity-machine is a wasteful, energy- and material-intensive process, any reduction in its impact can only be a welcome initiative. Calls to reduce the ecological footprint of humanity by a “factor of four” (in the 1980s) were followed by a more ambitious “factor of ten” (in the 1990s), or a 90 percent decrease in energy use and material flows (Robèrt et al. 205). This would either imply a strict reduction in the resources used by more people, or radical efficiency to match both environmental limits and human needs. Compared to the insurmountable political and social challenges of the first, the second objective requires only technical and scientific innovations and designs to be developed by existing industries. While such eco-efficiency measures have been adopted unanimously across sectors, they largely failed to deliver any noticeable decrease in resource and energy consumption, both are witnessing a consistent rise (York 143–147). This situation is explained in ecological economics by the Jevons paradox or rebound effect – suggesting that efficiency gains are over-compensated by increased consumption, primarily due to lower costs and prices. For instance, fuel-efficient personal vehicles encourage users to drive more, while energy-efficient lightbulbs trigger the superfluous illumination of gardens. Similarly, the substitution of one resource by another does not necessarily reduce the pressure on any resources, as seen in the increased paper consumption with computers and electronic information (Sellen & Harper). Efficiency and substitution are, therefore, not impediments to the commodity-machine, but quite the opposite: they render companies “leaner and meaner” and more profitable, and as a consequence, drive market expansion and growth (Næss & Høyer). Dematerialisation, while necessary, is likely to be limited by the overriding imperative of economic growth. As John Ehrenfeld notes: “almost everything being done in the name of sustainable development addresses and attempts to reduce unsustainability. But reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create sustainability” (7). In other words, designing less bad products is not the same as designing good products.

Other than those that champion dematerialisation strategies aimed at making quantitative changes, there are others that strive for qualitative differences in the production cycle, aiming to introduce circularity. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, durability and closed-loop processes acknowledge the limits of dematerialisation, and focus on redesigning the materiality of goods in compatibility with the assumptions of steady-state or circular economies (Daly). One of the most prominent and widely debated approaches is the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) model, introduced by chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. Taking its inspiration from the biomimicry and permaculture principle of “waste equals food”, C2C supports up-cycling when possible (instead of down-cycling), avoids toxic and hybrid materials (difficult to separate), and encourages easy disassembly. As a well-publicised example, the Mirra office chair by Herman Miller was redesigned for a C2C certification with an overall score of 80%. Whatever this achievement means, we must take their word for it, as the assessment and rating tool is not entirely transparent, neither it is independently verified, nor is the actual chemical composition of the materials ever disclosed publicly (Rossi et al. 208). Furthermore, the design innovations have been patented by the company to preserve its eco-competitive advantage, and the chair remains a commodity that generates profit by the number of units sold. In contrast, adopting a Product-Service System would eliminate the commodity exchange and ownership altogether (Chick & Micklethwaite 112). Ultimately C2C still remains a technical fix to the commodity-machine, requiring further professional specialisation and more technical expertise in the research and development of designs than ever before, only to be protected by copyrights and trademarks. This also limits sustainability efforts to the confines of techno-scientific expertise, without seeking eventual social or cultural solutions (Bakker 3), increasing as a result the level of unsustainable complexity of the commodity-machine rather than reducing it towards more resilient configurations.

I have so far introduced the commodity-machine as constituted by coordinated efforts in design and manufacturing, each having a share of responsibility, and both mobilised for the production of commodities. I have further identified several contested practices that are clearly reflections of the commodity-machine, being an extreme division of labour, vast geographical separation and an endless depletion of resources. In response to these tensions, the predominant approaches to sustainable design are strictly interested in the material impact of designed goods, and are therefore an integral part of the logic of the ecological modernisation of the commodity-machine itself. I will now make a study of the discourses surrounding the commodities, where certain mediating channels (such as branding, advertising and marketing) play a strategic role in the “green” overhaul of the commodity-machine.

[1]     I often encountered these terms in sustainable design literature, including Bhamra & Lofthouse; McDonough & Braungart; Vezzoli & Manzini; Shedroff & Lovins; Orr; Thorpe.

2. The greening of commodity discourses

I started out by recounting how things are designed, engineered, extracted, refined, formed, treated, assembled, transported, distributed, sold, purchased, used, trashed, dumped and replaced, although very few of these processes are legible on the pristine surfaces of the goods themselves. Walker laments that “their superficial, fashionable façades too often disguise a hidden world of resource depletion, pollution and social disparity and exploitation” (59). The materiality of commodities is designed to mask these worlds; and the task of revealing their stories is thus delegated to the mediating channels that surround the commodities. Channels such as branding, advertisement, packaging and retail design fill the void between production and consumption, although with entirely different narratives – sports shoe commercials tend to feature top athletes, and rarely show cows, oil refineries or sweatshop workers. Walker argues that industrial design has become strongly dependent on marketing, as expressed in the styling of products, “outer casings can be defined more subjectively and can be updated much more rapidly [than the inner workings], making the previous model seem old-fashioned and less desirable” (142). Similar to the designers implicated in the production of “cheap plastic junk”, advertising and marketing professionals are also accused of placing commercial priorities over concerns for “human needs”. Timothy Luke states unequivocally that designers specialised in mediation, such as “advertising, fashion, interior design, product styling, mass media”, are indispensable for the commodity-machine: “Without the aestheticization of commerce, life as we know it in late capitalism would be impossible” (74). Marketing may coat commodities with stories and messages that both aestheticise commerce and anaesthetise consumers, and that reproduce consumerism and commodity fetishism, but it may be somewhat of an exaggeration to claim that it is the ultimate driving force behind the commodity-machine.

Nigel Thrift (echoing Boltanski and Chiapello) reminds that capitalism is a highly adaptive and constantly mutating formation, “the whole point of capitalism (...) is precisely its ability to change its practices constantly, and those who run corporations must be able to surf the right side of the constant change that results, or risk being washed up on the reefs of irrelevance – and thrown into bankruptcy” (3). Ecological crises are driving yet another cycle of renewal and a reinvention of marketing, this time endorsing and promoting a “green” agenda. Such approaches have been labelled “greenwashing” in contemporary activist discourse, and the marketing sector has been quick to catch up and adapt itself: handbooks produced for advertisers concede that misleading messages are frequent, and that responsible advertising is required to be factual and accurate in its communication (Horiuchi et al.). Rather than calling out the superficial hypocrisy of greenwashing through mediating channels, it may be more relevant to identify the ideological foundations that enable them in the first place. What makes recklessness commonplace and acceptable has been dealt with in scholarly discourses on sustainability, providing legitimate grounds for practitioners to build upon. I present below two articles on sustainable design that align themselves with market-based approaches. My intention here, however, is not to debunk them point by point, but to showcase their uncritical endorsement of the commodity-machine.[1]

The first paper showcases how the Design for Sustainability (D4S) concept is understood and implemented by UNEP in collaboration with TU Delft, a technical university in the Netherlands. The authors explain that their methods are based on the “triple bottom line” principle that simultaneously seeks the sustainability of “people, profit, and planet” (Clark et al. 410), in which sustaining profitability is seen as a fundamental factor. Similarly, they insist that “industry is vital for the economic growth of all nations”, and that “product innovation is instrumental for economic growth” (412). The reasons for and benefits of subordinating sustainable design to growth imperatives are never explained, while that decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation is presented as a concept of “great importance”: “Sustainable innovation and design is (...) about rethinking how to meet the need for growth while at the same time reducing negative environmental and social impacts” (410). Critiques of growth, from their origins in the Club of Rome report to the more recent proponents of degrowth (Latouche; D’Alisa et al.; Demaria et al.), have consistently pointed out the inherent contradictions between the needs of people and the limits of the planet on one side, and the profit-seeking motives of companies on the other. They have also underlined the lack of empirical evidence supporting the absolute decoupling of GDP and environmental pressure (Jackson 67). None of these matter for the authors, however, whose eyes are fixated on the big picture, leading them to repeatedly make a case for the global applicability of D4S methods, “[the] fitting design and marketing of products and services for the vast potential markets in Latin America, Africa and Asia, both by multinational companies and by SMEs worldwide” (Clark et al. 412). In other words, the world should be considered a “land of opportunities” in which multinationals can expand their markets, with the indispensable contribution of sustainable designers on their side. Perhaps it would be unfair to expect a decolonial critique of Western developmentalism from a technical research institute. These disciplines have been progressively integrated to the generalised post-political, post-democratic environmentalism of recent decades (Swyngedouw). That said, their strong attachment to growth, profit and marketing exemplifies what Victor Margolin regards as “designers’ attempts to introduce ecological principles to the market economy” (101).

A second paper, entitled “Greening Capitalism: Opportunities for a Green Commodity” by Prothero and Fitchett, approaches sustainability from a macro-marketing perspective. The frank and confident language of the authors makes them prime representatives of green capitalist claims, and their assumptions and arguments deserve closer inspection. Their definition of green commodities has three façades. The first corresponds to the objectives of conventional sustainable design, referring to “goods that are designed, produced, and exchanged while causing minimal detriment to the environment” (51). Here, they commend the efforts of the companies that are part of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, among which are those that are considered the worst environmental offenders, and that actively lobby against effective climate legislation (Greenpeace 50–51). The second definition of green commodities overlaps with sustainable consumption, although the authors acknowledge that it remains a “fuzzy concept”. They argue, somewhat optimistically, that if marketing can convince “that two cars are better than one (or three better than two), then the very same commodity discourse can be used by the green movement to encourage people to buy less” (Prothero and Fitchett 50-51). Finally, the third aspect of green commodities call on people “to consider the systems within society that can be used to commodify the environment in such a way that enables the green message to be communicated to the wider public through the mechanism of the market itself” (51). This seems to be an endorsement of the marketisation of “ecosystem services”, such as emission-trading schemes, carbon offsetting mechanisms and other green capitalist measures that are thoroughly criticised as land grabs and new enclosures (Böhm 26). Macro-marketing experts do not hesitate to affirm that greenwashing “conclusively demonstrate that green themes can be successfully communicated and implemented via commodity culture” (Prothero and Fitchett 49). In other words, greenwashing is actually proof that companies can communicate sustainability, and that consumers are willing to buy (into) it. Going further, they are persuaded that “relations of commodity exchange cannot themselves be rejected” (50). Similarly, they argue that environmentalist movements “cannot continue to operate on the assumption that capitalism has an implicit bias that favours further ecological destruction because the commodity discourse has no such ideological bent”, and advise them to endorse the mainstream economy and its commodity culture, “rather than hanker after subversive ideals and the romanticism of the revolutionary” (51). Yet a little further below, the authors admit that with sustainable businesses “major emphasis is still on the capitalist goal of profit-making. We need to change the reliance on this capitalistic goal” (53). It remains unclear why they would have an issue with the goal of profit-making if it had no environmental side effects, and how one is supposed to abandon profit-making while still being dedicated to the production and marketing of commodities.

When the dominant conceptualisations of sustainable design come with a skewed vision, one can question whether the term “sustainability” is adequate for design. As sustainability became a buzzword over the last decades, the political usage of the term has paradoxically eroded into nothingness. Sustainable development was popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development in its 1987 report “Our Common Future”, coining the widely adopted definition, despite the vagueness of its meaning; “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (sec.Conclusion). What might at first have been a bold and fresh idea, subsequently passed through several amendments in the following decades. As George Monbiot recalls, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit “world leaders signed up to something called “sustainability“. After being subordinated to the objectives of “development”, it was further revised to “sustainable growth”, which is somewhat of an oxymoron for those who argue that sustainability and growth are incompatible. Luckily, the world leaders must have recognised the cognitive dissonance, as they came up with yet another term for the Rio+20 Declaration: sustained growth. There is no contradiction here, since there is no longer any mention of sustainability, with the stated objective being to sustain growth at all costs. Sustaining growth promises overall continuity with minimal but necessary change. Rephrasing and updating the original meaning of “sustainable development”, we now have a tentative definition of what is to be sustained to grow: economic growth that accumulates capital in the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to accumulate capital. After all, capital must self-replicate in ever greater amounts in order to be capital – if it ceases to reproduce, it simply ceases to exist as such. If sustainable development has become synonymous with green capitalism, then sustainable design means no more than sustaining design as close as possible to its business-as-usual, commodity-machine state.[2] Chick and Micklethwaite echo this view, “the term sustainable design suggests we are concerned with sustaining design in and of itself, whereas we are actually concerned with the application of design in pursuit of sustainability” (115).

In this section, I have investigated the “greening” of commodity discourse by showing how design industries have been the ideal carrier of such a discourse. Drawing upon the debates in ecological economics and related fields, I have touched upon the critiques of green capitalism, ecological modernisation, economic decoupling, post-political environmentalism and the commodification of nature, and in doing so, exposed the paradoxes of sustainable design principles that cannot envision anything other than the production of commodities for capitalist markets, being bound to profit and growth objectives. Presenting examples that illustrate the inadequacy of maintaining a narrow focus on material performance or the superficiality of supplementation with misleading aesthetics allows me to claim that conventional sustainable design principles fail to respond to the severity of the crises facing the commodity-machine. In the final section, I question whether the commodity-machine itself is in any way capable of confronting and overcoming the challenges of sustainability.

[1]     Most interest in recent cultural studies of globalisation has entered this sphere of “the mediation of things” (Lash & Lury). My intention is to draw attention back to fabrication as the primary stage of interest. Bans and restrictions on advertising are cited as potential degrowth policy measures (Latouche 71), but it is uncertain whether they can singlehandedly strike a fatal blow against the commodity-machine.
[2]     Design scholars have attempted to come out from the muddy waters of sustainability discourse by proposing “sustainment” (Fry) and “sustainism” (Schwarz and Elffers) as alternative concepts.

3. The reproduction of commodification

Following the stages in Grace Lees-Maffei’s design historiography, design cultures are studied along the separate conventional stages of production, mediation and consumption. Shortened as the ‘PCM paradigm’ (351), this linear, object-centric analytical model was useful in providing the first definition of the commodity-machine as simply commodity production. However, whether analysing the production of commodities by breaking it down into containerised domains, or investigating the sum of its distinct parts, we fall short of explaining the overall “organised crime” of the commodity-machine. In this final section, I propose an alternative conceptualisation of the commodity-machine that reveals aspects that would be indiscernible in a study of its components. As argued previously, over-emphasis on the materiality of objects results in hyper-specialisation in design practices, and diverts attention from the fact that the objects remain commodities, i.e., exchange goods that are produced by, and intertwined with the commodity-machine. The object-centric sustainability critique is consistently mirrored by the object-centric proposals of sustainable design principles, certainly lessening the worst impacts of commodities to a certain extent, but still showcasing an apparent inability to disentangle design from the commodity-machine. Summarising this challenge, Jesko Fezer states:

The current emergence of ethically motivated attempts to redefine the paradigms of design, employing the catchwords "sustainability," "social compatibility," and "producer-consumer equity", generally fall short. They argue vigorously in terms of market-alignment and reflect a consumer-oriented or individualist approach, with the result that urban or social objectives—and hence also any design-political dimensions—remain off the map. (4)

To understand why this is the case, we need to take another look at design cultures, not through the lens of objects, but through the processes of value creation. A value regime consists of “the rules that determine what society and the economy consider to be of value” and can be understood by studying “the underlying modes of production – i.e. how value is created and distributed” (Bauwens 'Commons'). Firstly, the act of “designing” (as a verb) done by a “designer” subject, takes place for a design (as a noun) to emerge. Marx distinguishes the architect from the bee by the labour-process of “raising his structure in imagination before erecting it in reality” (Capital chap.7). This is in fact a generalised human practice of problem-solving, being an intentional, subjective and reflective process. While it is usually recognised as a creative, innovative activity, anything from making the bed in the morning to concocting a master plan to take over the world could fit this extremely vague and elusive definition. The normative definitions of design professionals exemplified in the introduction are concerned specifically with this original stage; making sense of designing (as a verb) serves to justify its existence as a human activity, it gives design a social purpose. Secondly, “design” (as a noun, from it. disegno, fr. dessin/dessein) denotes a finalised project, a plan or a blueprint, and the solution to a problem, with the intention of realisation. It is no longer in the hands of its designer; once the process is complete, the design has an autonomous existence on its own. It can take shape in a visualisation (as a drawing), a narrative (as a manual), or in any communicative medium that can be distributed and circulated. It is the immaterial information or knowledge that precedes the material. Issues of secrecy, openness, access and control are determined by how the plans will be deployed. Thirdly, a “designed” (as an adjective) object or product is the physical, material equivalent of a design (as a noun), being something that is made, built or constructed according to the plan. Not every design is materialised, and not every artefact is designed. Some designs remain fictional, in the sense that they remain unrealised; and some objects are the fruit of immediate improvisation, without a preceding design phase. This coupling between a design and an object (in a broad sense) is thereby a precondition for the consideration of something as “designed” (as an adjective). In the case of software – as an infinitely reproducible virtual object – the distinction may appear to be redundant, since no material production is necessary, although the lines of code and a running program can still be thought of as separate entities.

I observe several advantages of this triad in a design analysis. The stages of labour, knowledge and artefact are similar to the stages of production, mediation and consumption, both being a series of distinct, logical and sequential steps. The two visions of design cultures diverge in their focus: the PCM paradigm requires an object to be traced “from cradle to grave”; whereas labour, knowledge and artefact can all be seen as processes of valorisation. This approach downplays the emphasis on the object in its “plain, homely and bodily form”, and instead develops an analytical frame for design as a “depository of value”. The labour of the designer is a valuable activity in itself, having different values to the blueprint of a project, and the final object is involved in its own valorisation processes. By shifting focus away from physical objects towards value forms, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the political economy of design. The PCM paradigm takes for granted the distance between industrial production and individual consumption, and specifically their mediation through the market. Instead of having market mediation as the common ground that brings diverse parties together, at the centrepiece of this value-centric model is the design project itself that mediates between the designers and the makers. Similarly, instead of the assumed unity of design and manufacture at the “production phase”, where in reality manufacturing is dependent upon designing (which may yet physically be miles apart), my framework distinguishes between the labour that goes into designing and making, each of which have their own valorisation processes. Ultimately, while the object-centric paradigm serves well as a descriptive tool for the study of already existing – if not dominant – practices of material production, it remains inadequate for an analysis of the emergent practices that blur the boundaries of material and immaterial production, or the undefined boundaries of the marketplace. In contrast, since value itself is a “travelling concept”, criss-crossing economics, politics and ethics, this value-centric model would be applicable to descriptive, critical as well as normative research agendas in design studies.

Looking at the commodity-machine from this analytical frame, I distinguish three processes that are subject to capitalist valorisation, private ownership and market exchange. First, designers either earn their wages in exchange of their labour, or are paid as freelance workers under structurally precarious conditions. Second, the designs themselves are owned and legally protected as intellectual property, or through patents and copyright, and are consequently subject to exchange just like any other commodity. Third, the resources and means of production necessary for the making of an object are already overwhelmingly privately owned – in all probability, by stockholders of corporations that control an out-of-sight and securitised industrial infrastructure. As a result of this triple commodification, any physical object produced on this thoroughly enclosed planet appears to be predestined to circulate as a commodity, to be consumed in exchange for money, or possibly earned in yet another commodified labour relationship. If all of the social relations involved in the production of goods are themselves commodified, then the commodity-machine is essentially a machine that (re)produces commodification, rather than being mere commodified-machines sold on the supermarket aisles. Since it recreates its own conditions of existence, the commodity-machine does not stop, but disseminates around the globe an incessant flux of commodities seeking further commodification, and in the process, transforms life into lifeless objects. In this light, the commodity-machine, which was perceived initially as a linear system, emerges now as a self-reinforcing cycle of ever more commodification. Since the cell-form of capitalism is the commodity, the reproduction of capital depends on the production of commodities, enabling further commodification. The primary purpose of the commodity-machine is then to expand the web of commodification surrounding the commodity, until everything is mediated by market exchange. Considering that the commodity-machine is not an isolated process, but is itself embedded within a larger cycle of commodification (of nature, culture and social relations), then the contradictions of the systems on which it depends are also contradictions of the commodity-machine. Petrina claims that “it is not only our products that have become ecologically unsound – it is our entire process of capitalistic design along with our lifestyles” (212), or in other words, it is not designed objects themselves that are unsustainable, but the economic relations they are embedded within. As much as individual designers may authentically aspire for well-being, sustainability or even justice, they nonetheless remain bound to the commodity form, and are embedded in the commodity-machine. There is an invisible hand behind the visible hand of the designer: a structurally crisis-ridden, fragile, and therefore unsustainable commodity-machine that effectively operates as an unrivalled master-designer. Design practices can be sustainable only if they are decoupled from “the grip capital has exerted on consumption and from its monopoly of the means of production” (Gorz, “Exit” 9), and by extension, from the logic of the unlimited accumulation of capital within a global, unregulated market economy. Any effective sustainability of design practices is ultimately dependent on its decoupling from, or the overcoming of, the structural unsustainability of global capital.

In this section, I presented the commodity-machine as something more than the production of exchange goods, being rather a reproduction of exchange value and exchange relations. However, this claim needs to be nuanced: design cultures are not supposed to be bound inevitably to this spiral of commodification. The commodity-machine is only the starting point of the analysis, as what lies outside, opposite, or beyond the commodity-machine is the main concern of this research. Walker suggests that “rather than defining objects within strict boundaries, and ‘professionalizing’ material culture, we need to open up new ways that allow us to delight in the act of creativity, and in the products of creativity” (37). But how does one open up these new ways and develop a design-political dimension, while avoiding the pitfalls of the commodity-machine? How can sustainable design resist the sustainment, preservation and perpetuation of the commodity-machine with minimal tweaking, but go resolutely beyond it? Looking from the nexus of design and the political economy, the essence of unsustainability is perhaps best captured as follows: “the current political economy is based on a false idea of material abundance” coupled with “a false idea of immaterial scarcity” (Bauwens and Iacomella 323). In other words, the commodity-machine treats natural resources as infinite (i.e., extractivism and growth), but cultural resources as finite (i.e., patents and copyrights). The challenge of sustainability seeks how to reverse both processes simultaneously; operating within ecological limits while lifting the barriers to knowledge production. Sustaining societies and species on this planet requires designing without sustaining the unsustainable commodity-machine, or simply put, designing to unsustain the commodity-machine. Strategies for the disentanglement of design from the commodity-machine need to be elaborated alongside strong theoretical foundations that go deeper than merely labelling a passing trend. By shifting the understanding of sustainable design away from dominant practices and towards those that are as yet under-theorised and emergent, in the following section I propose a design-political framework based on an alternative value-centric model that decidedly seeks to unsustain the commodity-machine.

I.B. Postcapitalism

Peaking carbon, capital and beyond

In this section, I present a number of contemporary theorisations and speculations on how capitalism may come to an end, as well as some emergent practices that are illuminating pathways that may surpass it. To this end, I explore various spatial, temporal and political strategies concerned with the end of capitalism and the aftermath, for which I will seek answers to the following questions: What are the current discourses on the creation of a counter-hegemonic project to move beyond capital? How can we determine what constitutes an alternative viable political economy? In what ways can design practices contribute to a broader postcapitalist project? I conceptualise the terms “peak carbon” and “peak capital” in order to distinguish between the current postcapitalist imaginaries and the historical ones, and propose a radically different political economy of design to be deployed at great pace and scale. As an alternative to conventional object-centric analysis and critique, I elaborate a threefold framework for the study and practice of sustainable design that shifts focus towards value processes that practice commoning.

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