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Let’s talk local

Many of us have probably assigned a “local materials” brief. I have a couple of these in my teaching guide. One focuses on having students work hyperlocally (10-mile radius) and the other focuses on the balance between local and global components.
Global sources for the materials and processes in bluejeans

Resources aren’t evenly distributed and we need inter-operability, so some standard, mass produced global components are a necessary part of design. But how do we balance these off against local resources and capability? This is just one of several tensions in ‘local” that can serve as a jumping off points for student briefs, research and writing.


Stewart Walker’s book Sustainable by Design explores the local/global question:

“Where appropriate, products and parts could be made using locally available resources, but there would remain many components that would be more appropriately manufactured in high quantities.

For example light sockets, bulbs and electronic parts would be difficult to manufacture at the local level and it would be inappropriate to do so. It is important to retain standardization of these types of components for safety reasons and to ensure compatibility.

Sustainable product design must, therefore, combine and integrate scales –using locally and regionally produced parts from regional materials in combination with mass-produced parts. If the mass-produced parts are designed so that they are not specific to a particular product, they can be recovered and more easily reused in other applications” (Walker, 2006 p. 93).

Walker’s own prototypes are striking in how they break the mold of expected product form.

Architects have this same quandry in terms of building materials and other products, something that the UK’s BedZed project documented in its Construction Materials Report (pdf). For that project they were able to source more than half the materials from a 35 mile radius.


BedZed’s report, like others, finds another tension aound “local”– in many cases the environmental impacts of the materials in a house, garment or appliance are less significant than the actual performance of the object over its lifetime.

For example, energy used in clothes washing and home heating ultimately have more environmental impact than the initial materials. This tension forces us to look at energy systems much more closely.


A third tension for “local”  is old global. Once global componenets start flowing, they accumulate in major population centers. In effect, used global components become local. Can we make use of them? Dan Lockton’s recent article on Design for Repair argues we can, if we can understand, access and fix our objects.

Another approach is McDonough and Braungart’s “technical nutrients,” for designers,  immortalized in their book Cradle to Cradle.  They’d like us to have two closed cycles, one for technical materials like chemicals and plastics (which will probably include a lot of global components) and one for organic, safely biodegradable materials like wood or fabric fiber. As they so usefully point out with their DesignTex story, many potentailly biodegradable materials are not as safe as they seem. We have a huge amount of work to do in getting our designers technical and organic nutrient cycles sorted out.


Lance Hosey points out, in his article “The Ethics of Brick” (2005) that there are social concerns embedded in sustainability and argues these concerns should trump the local sourcing radius.

If we want to prioritize supporting “fair trade” and making it likely that our purchases send money to communities in need, then a local radius may not be the way to go:

“a 500-mile radius anywhere in the United States will encircle some of the wealthiest communities on the planet—in other words, those least in need. On average, annual incomes here are more than 50 times higher than those in places like Ethiopia and Burundi, where people typically earn the equivalent of $600 or $700 per year.”

He concludes that not all sustainable design need be local.


IN THE END, local isn’t as clean and simple as it seems, and that’s something useful for students to process through one of more of these tensions.

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