Leyla Acaroglu was 19 years old when, sitting in her first design lecture, she heard something that would change the way she saw the world forever.
Her design professor was giving a lecture on the Gaia hypothesis: the theory that everything in nature is interconnected. As designers, he underlined, they would probably one day make a creative decision that would have far-reaching environmental impacts that they wouldn't even know about.
“I sat there looking at this picture of a tsunami and thinking ‘What! Why didn’t anybody tell me this? Why is this the first time I’m learning about this?’,” said Acaroglu.
“I just couldn’t reconcile that experience,” she said. So, Acaroglu decided to make it her life goal to work in sustainable design and help people create better products and services that would lessen their environmental footprint.
Today, Acaroglu is a UN Environment Champion of the Earth for her efforts in spreading sustainable design solutions. She passionately believes that we are in the midst of a major cultural shift towards the circular economy, simply because there are no other options for our planet.
“Changing the way we do things is a design challenge. Design is not just the act of creating a really comfortable chair, design is the act of taking any resource and forming it into something new,” she said. “We're setting ourselves up for failure unless we figure out how to circularize the system.”
Acaroglu, who is 36-years-old and the founder of two design studios— one of which focuses on learning experiences to support companies’ transition to a circular economy— says that most business structures that a government allows to be created are designed to be “very rigid and linear.”
“We don't have policies that support these hybrid social innovation models. There's only a couple countries in the world that allow that to happen,” she said.
Her philosophy is that rather than just selling a product, which is the consumer’s responsibility to discard at the end of its life, companies should design products that are modular, recyclable and economically viable to recondition and reuse, from the beginning.
Acaroglu says one effective tool to assess a product’s impact on the environment is life cycle assessment, as it looks at the impact of activities in the economy across the entire supply chain.
Apart from training companies, she also created thecircularclassroom.com to help students think from a young age about products having a circular rather than linear lifecycle. She designed a curriculum for Finland and is currently building an entire learning system for Thailand, which will be delivered outside of the main school system.
“Our siloed approach to education is not equipping young people with the tools that they would need to bring about the new economy that we are going into,” she said.
A self-described fan of Buckminster Fuller—the eccentric futurist who became famous in the 1950s for his invention of the geodesic dome—Acaroglu said what she admires the most about Fuller was his ability to infect people with ideas about the future and how to change the world.
“We live in magic,” she said. “There is no other known lifeforce in this universe. And we have the power to destroy or create within that magic.”
Champions of the Earth, the United Nations’ highest environmental honour, celebrates outstanding figures from the public and private sectors, and from civil society whose actions have had a transformative positive impact on the environment. If that is someone you know, nominate them to be our next Champion.