Katie Treggiden, Podcast host, circular economy campaigner, craft and designer, and now educator

Can you share more behind the mission of why you do what you do?

Sure! I am an author, journalist, podcaster and keynote speaker on a mission to answer the question Can Craft Save The World? I am interested in how craft, design and sustainability intersect and what we can learn from people who make with their hands (often women and people of colour) to bring about a just transition to a more circular economy. 

You have been working in the space of craft and design for 20+ years. Did you ever see yourself as a maker before you decided on journalism? If not, what was the pull towards this area?

I sometimes joke that I am in fact a designer-maker, it’s just that what I design and make are sentences! I spent the first 12 years of my career in advertising and brand strategy and have been writing about purpose-driven craft and design for the past decade. Part of that career change was about trying on lots of different hats, so I did courses in pottery, screen-printing, photography, furniture design… (Putney School of Art and Central Saint Martin’s were where I spent my annual leave in those days!). I documented what I was learning in a blog called confessions of a design geek, and I discovered that I wasn’t a natural designer or maker (I’m not patient enough!), but what I did love was learning and writing about craft and design. 

When did you begin to recognise there was a real need to address the issue of waste in manufacture & design? 

Having spent the better part of a decade writing about purpose-driven craft and design,  I wanted to really refine what I meant by “purpose”. In 2017, I was accepted onto the master’s in History of Design programme at the University of Oxford and I allowed myself the first year to explore. I wrote a paper on the plastics crisis and two on feminism and the role that craft plays in protest and identity. In the summer holidays between the two years of the course, I realised that I wanted to explore the role that craft could play in the most pressing challenge of our time – the climate crisis. I set myself an informal question for my second year “Can Craft Save The World?” and wrote papers on biofabrication and the role of plastic in a circular economy, before writing my dissertation on repair. I graduated convinced that craft and the people who practice it have a crucial role to play in bringing about a circular economy. I have since dedicated my career to answering that question, starting with waste – because we have to deal with the legacy of 200 years of the linear take-make-waste model. I wrote book called Waste: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), dedicate the the first season of my podcast Circular with Katie Treggiden to the same subject, and I have just launched Waste: A Masterclass – a 12-week programme conceived to inspire, educate and empower designer-makers to create circular products from waste. 

What does the creative and development process look like for you Now Vs when you started?

My research has become more methodical and rigorous as a result of doing my master’s (my undergraduate degree was in biology!); having absolute clarity and focus on my purpose has helped everything I do to become much more aligned; and, as a recovering perfectionist / productivity addict, I am trying to embrace playful experimentation more. But I still go through the same rollercoaster ride of self-doubt and self-belief that all creatives experience – and I am still terrified of the blank page – some things never change! 

There is much doom and gloom around what the shape of the future might look like but do you have any examples of hope and inspiration you would like to share within the area of craft and design?

So many! In their book The Future We Choose, Christina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac propose that ‘stubborn optimism’ is one of three mindsets we need to adopt to solve the climate crisis and that’s something I live by. In Waste: When Trash Becomes Treasure, I make no bones about the scale of the waste crisis we are facing, but I also share inspiring profiles of 30 designer-makers working with waste as a raw material towards a more circular model. One example is Yinka Ilori’s If Chairs Could Talk project for which he made five chairs from the pieces of other discarded chairs to tell the stories of five childhood friends – he now has legacy planning built into everything he does to make sure even his large-scale architectural installations are reused and repurposed. To help me maintain a mindset of stubborn optimism, there are more than 300 designer-makers sharing their stories of working towards more sustainable practices every day in my free Facebook Group, Making Design Circular. If you look for it, there is hope and inspiration everywhere. To quote Fred Rogers’ mother, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

What would be the first 3 things you would implement tomorrow for the rebuilding of the UK after the last 18 months?

1. I know this is a bit like using my first wish to ask for more three more wishes, but the first thing would be to implement the Green Party’s Green New Deal, which they describe as ”a ten-year plan to tackle climate and ecological breakdown at the scale and speed set out by science, by delivering a fast and fair transformation of our economy and society.” “Fast” and “fair” are important words here – we now have no choice but to address the climate crisis within this decade so we need to move very quickly, and we must ensure a just transition that doesn’t leave anybody behind. 

 2. I would introduce Universal Basic Income. The divide between rich and poor is accelerating at a terrifying pace and it’s coupled with a moral judgement that is deeply disturbing. In order to justify the privileges that those in positions of power enjoy, they have to believe that they deserve those privileges – and in order to make their logic stack up, that also means believing that those who are less fortunate don’t deserve the same, which is absolute nonsense. Giving everyone the same amount of money removes the stigma associated with receiving benefits, and the indignity and farce of disabled people (for example) having to prove their need – and gives people the breathing space to work out how they can best contribute to society. 

3. I would introduce a four-day working week for schools and businesses. After the year and half we’ve all just lived through, the last thing we need is to be putting in extra hours to catch up. We need time to rest, play, and reconnect with our loved ones. Plus, research shows that four-day weeks are actually more productive than five (or seven!) days of work, and that they improve wellbeing, gender equality, and carbon footprints. 

Are there any people/business you’d like to give a shout out too? Who else (doing amazing things within the circular economy) inspires you most?

Oh too many to mention! After the UK Government announced an all-male line up of senior negotiators for COP 26 in Glasgow later this year, BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour dedicated their 2020 Power List to “inspiring women whose work is making a significant positive contribution to the environment and the sustainability of our planet” which made me very happy. Lucy Siegle, who headed up the judging panel, is someone I respect enormously (I did a little happy dance around my kitchen when she agreed to be on the first season of my podcast!) and it was amazing to see the next generation of environmentalists such as Mya-Rose Craig, Ella Daish and Mikaela Loach recognised alongside the likes of Caroline Lucas and Kate Humble. I also firmly believe that anti-racism and environmentalism are utterly intersectional, so I was delighted to see Judy Ling-Wong – the founder and Honorary President of the Black Environment Network – on the list. 

What is the next big thing in the waste world that we haven’t tackled yet?

We are only just beginning to recognise waste as an abundant source of new raw materials. I have just launched a 12-week programme called Waste: A Masterclass, which I have developed specifically to empower designer-makers to create circular products from waste. We are halfway through the beta-run at the time of writing and the response has been amazing – there is a huge opportunity in working with waste. 

What pulled you towards the need to share the knowledge of waste streams and their value?

I have been absolutely heart-broken to hear designer-makers who used to feel proud of their livelihood talk about the heavy sense of guilt they feel about putting yet more “stuff” out into the world. Some have even stopped making altogether. I want to show them that they can be part of the solution. Yes, 200-years of a linear take-make-waste economy means we are running out of stuff to take from the earth, but there is an abundance of materials hiding in our waste streams just waiting to be explored. 

Who is it pitched to?

Designer-makers – that is those folk who both design their products (e.g. furniture, accessories, jewellery…) and make them, either for sale or as prototypes for production – who are keen to explore the potential of working with waste as a raw material and ready to embrace a collaborative, experimental, materials-first approach. 

What is the one thing you hope people would come away from the course with?

I want to reconnect designer-makers with the sense of playful curiosity that they started their careers or studies with and show them that sustainability doesn’t have to feel like duty or obligation, but that it can be the starting place for creativity, collaboration and experimentation. I can already see the beta cohort students’ eyes lighting up again – the transformation in them all has been incredible.  

Can you share with us about your relationship with nature/being outside and what the natural world means to you?

It means everything. I grew up in Cornwall, surrounded by the countryside and the sea, and I think that just gets into your bones somehow. In the summer, I do yoga on the beach, swim in the sea, and volunteer at a local community garden. In the winter, I wrap up warm to take my dog on long windswept walks and if I’m brave enough, I do yoga on the beach, swim in the sea and volunteer at a local community garden! If I’m having a bad day, I know all I need to do is to get outside and it will start to get better. We are so incredibly lucky to live on a planet with so much beauty and biodiversity, I don’t know why we wouldn’t do everything in our power to protect it. 

What is the one luxury that money can’t buy? 

Time – spacious, lazy, slow, glorious time! I am trying so hard to stop wearing ‘busy’ as a ‘badge of honour’ (she says, writing this at 8pm on the day of the deadline!) and reclaim some empty time, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Rest, boredom, and playful curiosity are so underrated in our productivity-obsessed society. 

What does home mean to you?

My husband and my dog – both of them run a couple of degrees warmer than me (more hair? I’m not sure!), so I always joke that I only keep them around to keep me warm, but I love nothing more than getting home after a long day or a business trip away and all three of us piling onto the sofa for a cosy night in.  

What is your favourite scent and why?

Cornish gorse. It’s a prickly shrub you see a lot on the coast and on the moors. It has a yellow flower and if you crush it between your fingers, it smells of coconut. My favourite perfume is Laboratory Purfume’s Gorse and my favourite chocolate is Chocolarder’s Wild Gorse Flower – I’m obsessed! It smells like the summers of my childhood!

What actions have you done recently to help your carbon footprint?

I have recently undertaken training with the Carbon Literacy Project, and as part of that training you commit to both reducing your own footprint and spreading the word. For my own part, I live and work in a very old building, so we are undertaking renovation work to make it much more energy efficient. In terms of helping others to do the same, I hope to create an accredited Carbon Literacy course specifically for designer-makers, so watch this space! 

Favourite shop/ place in your neighbourhood? And why?

I live in a tiny village, so we don’t actually have any shops! But there is a lovely shop in Launceston, Cornwall (about 45-mins from me), called Alice in Scandiland. I struggle not to buy everything whenever I go in there! It is so beautifully curated and all sourced from independent designers and makers.