Elodie Ternaux admits that when it comes to living sustainably, like most people, she is no saint.  “I don’t obey all the rules of the circular economy,” she says. “I think it is very hard to do so. But a good designer is someone who always challenges and questions things. And it is so exciting to put this into the context of the circular economy. It opens up so many possibilities to challenge what we are doing and have been doing forever without questioning it. That is what drives me. There is a challenge there that I think is really interesting.”

Ternaux is both an industrial designer and an engineer who is an expert in materials. She co-directed a material library for over 15 years in Paris before recently co-forming Hyloh, a global consultancy network that works with brands, governments, material manufacturers and academia to make a positive impact through the application of materials, processes, and circular design thinking. 

“When I started over 20 years ago, the question of sustainability was not that big a deal,” says Ternaux.

“People were looking for materials for technical or aesthetical reasons, not sustainability issues. Then in the past few years it has become a more urgent question. So Hyloh was created to provide solutions that addressed sustainability needs.”

- Elodie Ternaux

Materials are everywhere, Ternaux points out. “Everything is made out of materials, even the digital world requires energy and hardware that use materials. But people put too much responsibility on materials when it comes to sustainability. People ask us for sustainable materials for their projects. But they don’t exist. There are no sustainable materials. Materials are not good or bad per se. Even some that we consider toxic can have, depending on quantity, concentration and conditions of use, a positive effect, for example, in cancer treatment. The choice of material is not going to guarantee that a project is circular. And materials are not something that you can take out of a context, especially the sustainability context. They play a role, but not necessarily a major role. It all depends.”

It is all about the project context, she adds, including where the raw materials were sourced from, what the manufacturing process implied, how the resulting product or service is delivered and used and what happens at the end of life. “We have to think holistically, in terms of full life cycles,” Ternaux says. “It is a very complex maze. But we have to embrace the complexity of it in order to loop the loop.”

Being a designer and an engineer helps Ternaux understand how, when it comes to circular material solutions, both the choice of material and design have a part to play. “Neither is more important,” she says.

“Again, it depends on the project. Sometimes the design choice will be paramount and in other cases the material choice will be. But most of the time it is a question of finding the ideal mix.”

- Elodie Ternaux

The right ingredients for the circular solution are also a moveable feast, she adds. “You have to ask yourself what can I do right now as well as what do I need to do tomorrow, because that might be something else. For instance, recycling streams are constantly making progress. Also, we collectively change our views on the world as we go forward. We will be ready to do things tomorrow that we are not fully prepared to accept today. What is happening with the pandemic is obvious proof of that.”

Ternaux also points out that in some cases, the best choice of material is the least obvious one. “Sometimes you are surprised. We work with luxurious brands in cosmetics that want to be more sustainable. There is something tricky to reconcile when you put together the concepts of luxury, sustainability and packaging. One option could be to bet on durable materials, like glass or metal, and have them last a long time. But for packaging, the environmental impact of such materials is way worse than plastic, unless you can guarantee that a glass or metal bottle will go through many cycles, that you know for sure you are going to refill it. Then suddenly plastic is not the best choice anymore. But packaging like this often remains single use packaging. The material is chosen for the sake of looking luxurious, because brands feel that clients buying expensive products won’t want plastic, even though environmentally speaking, for single use, plastic is better.”

The biggest challenge to choosing materials for a circular economy is, according to Ternaux, fear of change.

“Metathesiophobia, the scientific name for fear of change. People want to keep doing the same thing but more sustainably, and it doesn’t really work. If we want to improve our sustainability credentials by drastically reducing our environmental impacts, we are going to have to change.”

- Elodie Ternaux

She does however see positive trends emerging, including much more honesty. “The trend is to talk about sustainability.” she says. “Transparency is the new green. Consumers are asking for information, they are more and more knowledgeable, and are more attentive to what brands are saying. They are asking brands to prove their sustainability credentials, so brands have to be transparent. And consumers also like brands that are honest about not being perfect, that say they are trying to find solutions. I think that works. Honesty is a good marketing trick. Consumers realise that brands are not super heroes and have the same contradictions as we have as individuals, and like consumers, they are doing their best.”

Ternaux also has a lot of faith in new brands. “Young brands tend to include circular thinking in their DNA from the start. And in a way that is easier. Working with big organisations requires so much energy and time to convince everybody at every level that they need to change. It is like moving a nation. But the world is changing, partly perhaps because of young people who as consumers want to see guarantees for their future. And if everyone makes small steps, it will make a difference. But those steps are needed in all areas. The material world is amazing. But It can’t make miracles on its own.”