From Textiles to Circularity: Olivia Aspinall on Pioneering Sustainable Design

Katie Furmston, Head of Design & Research, interviews Olivia Aspinall.

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Tell us about your early career?

I studied Textile Design and whilst I was a Textile Designer I was supposed to be doing screen printing, but I ended up making hard surfaces. That led me to on to this experimental journey with making pigments and playing with materials.

Through these first explorations, I started my first company which was a bespoke surface design studio. I used to hand make surfaces for interior designers and architects for commercial projects and hospitality. I ran this company for around 9 years and ended up closing down just at the end of the pandemic when lots of commercial projects disappeared.

How did your career change after the pandemic?

I have always had a really keen interest for materials and I was getting more curious about materials and particularly how materials were depicted and spoken about in the design world and it was becoming quite frustrating.

For example, I was working on a material called Jesmonite and at the time it was branded as eco resin but no one actually knew what the word eco resin meant. From this, I fell down this massive rabbit hole, which led me to changing my career!

How has that led to where you are now?

Two years ago, I set up Do Not Go Gentle which is a materials and circularity consultancy for designers. I work with interior designers, architects and brands helping them to understand materials and I also work for Design Conformity, I head up their materials and products department and I’m building a database for designers to use in their projects.

Why do you think sustainability is so important right now?

I think people have come to realise that it’s not an added extra, it should be part of all business models.

Whether you’re a designer, with one or two people in the studio, or you’re just by yourself, or you’re a big team, it should be a part of your business model from the get go.

I think people have become more aware of the desperate need, but also how things are made.

Over the last few years it has become an absolute essential for businesses to survive.

What do you think is the most difficult aspect of implementing those sustainable practices?

In terms of selecting sustainable materials, I think it the most difficult aspects is quantifying it. You can have lots of knowledge, you can understand the material, but then often it’s hard to quantify.

That’s where the industry is struggling at the minute is. You’ve got EPDs and Lifecycle Assessments which are working towards some standardisation.

It’s the combination between quantifying it with data, and also making sensible, informed decisions.

The difficulty with sustainability of materials is knowing how to make decisions, both from a data point of view and also from a sensible end of life view.

As part of your work here at Design Conformity, you've been creating a materials directory, can you tell us a bit about what you've been doing?

We are building a materials and product database that is primarily aimed at furniture manufacturers, to help them make quantifiable decisions. We’re putting materials into the database from our current client. We spoke to the manufacturers, we know how they’re produced, we know what the processes are but we’ve also got that environmental data on them as well.

We’re building them into a database and within the tools that we work with, so that our customers can input designs, pick materials, and get that quantifiable data to help them make decisions.

What would you recommend to companies who are looking to take their first steps on that sustainability journey?

I think the first thing to do is an audit where you’re at.

  • What products and the materials are you using in your furniture pieces?
  • Where do the materials come from?
  • Can you get data on the materials?
  • How are things are built?
  • How are things are put together?
  • What are your fixtures and fittings?

This way can understand the material that you’re already using, and then how you can take steps to improve them.

Working with Design Conformity we can help you identify alternatives that will automatically reduce your carbon footprint and make your products more circular.

The first thing to do is assess where you’re at on a product level and on a wider company level.

You can’t change what you don’t measure.

Where can people get support on sustainability education?

We have a wide range of services available at Design Conformity from consultancy to databases you can access, that’s why we’re a good port of call for anyone making furniture or in need of education. I work on helping people understand materials.

If you’re in London, Manchester and Glasgow, there’s great materials libraries, and we’re building our own here in Nottingham as well.

At Design Conformity we have our Sustainable Design Course and Guide and Electrical Course and Guide to educate and support businesses and individuals looking to answer that very question. Come and talk to us!

What would you say to students who are looking to or currently working on a degree within product and furniture design?

With product and furniture design it’s important to get into the habit of assessing things that you’re making, with sustainability being at the core of your design principles.

  • Always designing for disassembly
  • Always design of circularity
  • Always designing knowing what your carbon footprint is

This should be at the core of what you are doing.

As a student it is sometimes hard and expensive to access data, but we provide a free trial of our Carbon Efficiency Estimator, and we are working with the University of Derby and Nottingham Trent University to expand our Sustainable Design Course into degree courses.

The most important thing as a student is to build those principles into your everyday.

  • What is the route to second life?
  • What is the process for disassembly?

If you’re designing something, you’ve got a responsibility for that end of life. When picking materials, it’s about more than the colour or if it is machinable. Do you know what the designated recycling is? Or how long it will last for? If you’re designing for reuse of the materials by putting them back into the start of your design process, you start to think about the second, third, fourth, lives of your product.

If you could design those next stages of life, how much value would you get in that object?

Where do you hope that your career is going to progress and take you in your future?

I really enjoy working with people and getting feedback, I’ve had people saying; they’ve really enjoyed the workshops because they understand things they didn’t understand before.

I really love it when people learn something, even if it’s simple, even if it’s like the difference between recyclable and made from recycled content, those things that we take for granted, that’s my favourite thing.

I want to keep developing that education side in different formats. I am working on some film projects and building my own platforms as well as Design Conformity and how I am sharing information.

I’m quite fascinated by the way that information is so rapid, so I want to focus on how we can make information clear and understandable around materials and circularity.

Is there a topic that you’d like to explore further?

It fascinates me the value we put on materials or the value we don’t put on certain materials.

The way we attribute values doesn’t seem to make sense in terms of the sustainable value or the monetary value that is actually embedded within that item. Our values are really skewed as a whole and I feel that would be a fascinating piece to explore. Why historically we value certain materials over others. If we don’t see where it’s made, we value it less. If we know whose hands have touched it, can we value it more? All those things I think are really fascinating.

“I am working with leading manufacturers and design students in the furniture industry to educate on all things sustainable design.”

Katie Furmston, Head of Design & Research

“I’m building a materials directory for materials suppliers to demonstrate their environmental impact and be found by thousands of manufacturers looking for sustainable alternatives.”

Olivia Aspinall, Head of Materials & Products