"We need a genuine restart that asks difficult questions about the role of Salone"
Milan design week is an opportunity to showcase ingenious responses to climate change but the Salone del Mobile fair it relies on is still inherently unsustainable, writes Katie Treggiden.
Salone del Mobile is back in its usual April slot and Milan design week 2023 is being touted as a new beginning after the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Having consulted with 2,300 interviewees and working groups on the fair's role post-covid, Salone is promising "a new trade-fair experience, an impactful cultural program, [and] an event that focuses on sustainability".
Stands will be laid over the lower floor of the Rho Fiera Milano fairgrounds only, rather than on both as in previous years, and the lighting show Euroluce will get a new "ring-shaped" layout. There is an attempt to fold the cultural heart of Milan design week into the fair itself with exhibitions, talks, workshops and installations. And finally, there is a renewed commitment to sustainability.
After the pandemic all but shut down the industry, a fresh start with sustainability at its heart feels appropriate
The first two seem inward-looking at best, but after the pandemic all but shut down the industry, a fresh start with sustainability at its heart feels appropriate. That part of the promise comes in the form of a new Sustainability Policy and Green Guidelines, membership of the UN Global Compact, and pending ISO 20121 certification.
The Green Guidelines ask exhibitors to be "team players" in the fair's attempts to become more eco-friendly, promoting circularity and reuse in installation, low-impact materials, safety and access for all, a traceable and responsible supply chain, and clear communication of their efforts. If there are any consequences to not being a "team player", these are not specified.
The phrases "cutting down","prioritising" and "opting for" are repeated throughout the document, which rather loosely incentivises action with the notion that "sustainability represents a new opportunity for growth".
But we know that reducing impact while pursuing growth is rarely an effective strategy in environmentalism. To really address climate change, we need a genuine moment of restart – one that asks difficult questions about the role of Salone instead of seeking ways to perpetuate business as usual. It is no longer enough to do less harm, we must actively find ways to regenerate natural systems and build a path towards global equity.
This year's edition of Salone del Mobile will draw 1,962 exhibitors from all over the world with countless product, furniture and stand components that cost a lot of carbon to move, let alone make. Typically, the fair attracts more than 370,000 specialist visitors from more than 188 countries, 5,000 journalists, and 27,500 members of the public. That's a lot of air miles.
And yet, Milan design week is also the world's largest showcase of the types of design innovation that the planet does need. At Salone Satellite last year, Disharee Mathur demonstrated her Passive Cooling Tiles, which are made from waste glass and sanitaryware and absorb ambient moisture to prevent buildings from overheating – a climate-positive solution to fight the effects of global warming.
My greatest fear is that none of what's good about Milan can exist without the very problems it is trying to solve
At Milan flagship show Alcova, Estuary of Riptide and Reunion by Forêt Atelier revealed the hidden flora in the waters of the Oosterschelde in the Netherlands and explored their potential for capturing carbon, reducing the methane emissions from cattle, and providing biodiverse habitats.
And Studio Swine's waste-free exhibition for the American Hardwood Export Council at the triennale showcased the potential for renewable hardwoods, called for balance in the way we use natural materials and underlined the need to "address the greatest social and economic issue of our time: climate change".
My hopes this year for Milan design week are, as always, that what I see will fill me with optimism. New ideas from bright, young designers more concerned with solving the world's problems than designing the next bestseller; material innovations that might finally free us from the linear take-make-waste model; and brands that are not just doing less harm but genuinely working for the benefit of people and planet.
Increasingly, however, my greatest fear is that none of what's good about Milan can exist without the very problems it is trying to solve. The temples to consumerism filled with the same products in new colourways that consign their perfectly good predecessors to landfill, the hundreds of thousands of visitors flying in for just a few days, the rife capitalism that makes even the most culturally important events possible.
I'm only one of 5,000 journalists, but will what I see in Milan – and any good that I can do a result – really offset my own contribution to the carbon footprint of this whole endeavour? I don't have an easy answer.
Milan design week is the biggest showcase of design in the world, and if it's not exploring creative solutions to the world's biggest problems, then I'm not sure what it is doing. But as trendy as it has become to tell anyone who will listen that you "don't bother with the fair anymore", Salone is the reason all of this is here.
Salone is the sun around which the rest of Milan design week orbits
We can't walk around the city, gelato in hand, and pretend that almost 2,000 international brands haven't shipped or air-freighted their wares into the Rho Fiera Milano fairgrounds. And we can't pretend that isn't what makes this entire endeavour possible. Salone is the sun around which the rest of Milan design week orbits. And without the sun, there is no life.
As with so much of the climate debate, there are no perfect solutions. No amount of "cutting down" or "opting for" is going to fix this. "Better than before" is still pretty bad.
But for all the hyperbole undoubtedly attached to this so-called "restart", and despite sidestepping existential questions that might enable meaningful change, I am still daring to be hopeful about Salone. I don't believe it has got the balance right yet, but at least it has its eyes on the scales.
Katie Treggiden is an author, journalist, podcaster and keynote speaker championing a circular approach to design. She is the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a membership community for designer-makers who want to become more sustainable.
Milan design week 2023
Milan design week 2023 takes place from 17-23 April 2022. See our Milan design week 2023 guide on Dezeen Events Guide for information about the many other exhibitions, installations and talks taking place throughout the week.