A Better Way to Think About Sustainability

In a recent TED talk for TED2013, design consultant Leyla Acaroglu tackles some persistent sustainability myths and advocates a new way of thinking about sustainability. From the TED blog:

Acaroglu wants you to think beyond choosing a material for your grocery tote. Instead, she encourages us to think about the entire life of a finished product, to think hard about the net impact a product has on the environment. This is life-cycle thinking, not just whether a product can be recycled, but all the parts of its existence: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and end of life.

Electric tea kettles, for example, are an unlikely drain on the environment:

In the UK, 97 percent of households have an electric tea kettle, and 65 percent of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles, boiling way more water than they need for a cuppa. One day of extra energy use from these kettles is enough to light all the streetlights in London for a night. What we need, Acaroglu says, is not better materials for the tea kettle, but a behavior-changing kettle that helps you boil just what you need.


If you are experiencing cold weather, then the waste heat produced by boiling water and incandescent light bulbs actually helps heat your home. So it isn't a complete loss. However, the location of the waste heat may not be optimal for transferring the effects of the heat to the inhabitants.

In hot weather, waste heat may require additional air conditioning to counteract it. That increases the cost of wasted energy in the summer. Another reason to grill outside rather than bake inside!

Mike B

I was actually surprised to learn that it is more efficient to live in Taxas and blast the AC most of the year than live in the north and use heat all winter (and AC for some part of the summer). Maine has the higest per capita CO2 production for this very reason.


I suspect this is true (if in fact it is) only for those northern houses that have absurdly poor insulation, and whose owners insist on keeping them at hothouse temperatures. Certainly my own experience suggests otherwise: in the first winter after I bought my older house over a decade ago, I used several hundred gallons of heating oil. Now, after upgrading insulation, sealing leaks, putting a wood-burning fireplace insert in the open fireplace, and adding some passive solar, I use only a small fraction of that - and I haven't run the A/C in a decade or so.


It's not always easy to judge, and it will always make sense to over-fill rather than under-fill. Plus, maybe we Brits are secretly assuming someone's about to pop round for a cuppa, best be prepared...


Changing habits solves that. I always fill the cup with water, then pour it into the kettle, thus heating exactly the amount of water I'll need.

tung bo

Allow me to suggest an even more efficient approach:

Put your water in y0ur mug and microwave it to heat the water.

Both use electricity, but the kettle needs to heat up the heating elements and the kettle itself. With microwave, you will heat up the mug, but that heat will continue to keep your water hot rather than just being wasted on the tea kettle.


I think this is in that tradition of thinking up weird metrics that can't be easily compared to other things, and then making a fetish of that (e.g., X tons of paper were used in those coffee cup sleeve, you selfish, Gaia-hating bastard).

Can't we just say that the price of energy may be too low (allowing you to boil more water than otherwise)? And what about Coase?

tung bo

Cost signal is not obvious enough or not efficient enough in this instance.

How can you tell how much more electricity is used to heat 2 cups of water compared to 1 cup and how much extra that costs? Most household cannot do this. Even if one can sees it, the single occurence cost may be so low that we think of it as zero.

Furthermore, the elasticity of response may not be high. For example, driving was presumed to be conditioned on the price of gasoline. But it turns out not to be that sensitive as the prices have went up. So it's not an effective means to decrease amount of car driving.
Convincing the person to take mass transit instead on carbon or conservation grounds may be much more effective.

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It sounds to me like the UK needs smaller electric teakettles, so that enough water for one or two cups feels about right.

Calvin Chu

Behaviour-changing kettle? Sometimes the better solutions are the simpler ones - why not just reduce the kettle size to match the size of a standard teacup?

From a design perspective if we want to get fancy, how about an option on the controller to increase the volume to '2 teacups', rather than 'XXX ml'?

Same principle for all other energy guzzlers - Energy requirements of airconditioning for 1 person in the room at 25 degrees is not the same as that for 5 people in the room.
Vary the cooling speed of a refrigerator in summer vs. winter.
How about just 3 speed options for cars: Crawl, Cruise, Dash?

Make all control indicators humanistic, with stick figures or sun/winter logos, rather than numbers.

Calvin Chu Yee Ming
Partner, Eden Strategy Institute

Mike B

The local food proponents will go on and on about about reducing the energy used in transport when in fact transport is one of the smallest contributors to the CO2 cost of a food. It is far more efficient to grow the food somewhere suited for it and leave the local land for other crops or even as a CO2 absorbing forest.

Nick Naranja

The logisitics of food transport and underlying supply and demand create very strange examples of inefficiency. In Florida, most of our produce in the winter is shipped north and we often end up with imports ourselves. I live in an area that grows large quantities of lettuce and celery and yet cannot find any of it in the grocery store nearest the farms that produce it. The grocery store is a mere 5 miles from the packing house and yet is full of lettuce and celery from California and Mexico. While it doesn't make carbon sense to grow bananas in a heated greenhouse in New York, it does make carbon sense to eat a New York apple instead of a Washington apple.

Mike B

The logistical system that causes such tactical inefficiencies is overall more efficient. Food for the local store comes from that store's distribution chain that minimizes the number of truck tricks to sully stock the items. Having some dude in a van drop off 1 case of celery to every store in the area is less efficient than having that case arrive on the single weekly/daily truck from the hub which can get entire containers of celery direct from a farm.

Remember minimizing labor should also go into product life cycle costs. Humans use up huge amounts of CO2 over their lifetimes. The more automation the less need for humans and with less human activity we see lower environmental impact.


You might think of it the other way around: all the energy wasted on lighting the streets of London would boil tea for the whole country.


Saw a similar argument for the Keystone pipeline.

If it doesn't get built, much of that Canadian oil will move by train.

Chris S

This gets complex very quickly. Sometimes you need to boil water for a 6 or 8 cup teapot -- that means you need a large kettle.

Then sometimes you need to boil water for one cup. But kettles can't be used across the complete range of volumes. Most kettles have a "minimum" level, so your large kettle must boil at least two cups. And using the small kettle twice is not a good way to make tea (or many other uses of hot water, for that matter).

You could solve this by having a large kettle and a small kettle, but then you need to weigh the environmental cost of having two kettles instead of just one.

It turns out that there is a "precise kettle" -- http://www.ecokettle.com/ECOKETTLE.htm -- but it only makes sense if you are buying a new kettle; it's unlikely that the energy savings will make up for the environmental footprint of replacing a working kettle.

Of course, if the price of electricity covered all the costs of the electricity production, this shouldn't matter. Consumers would already be making the tradeoff of the footprint of the electricity vs the footprint of the kettle. Perhaps electricity is underpriced compared to its true cost?


tung bo

Just use the microwave which you probably already have instead of buying another appliance.