The Question of Sustainability

By Published on .

Last week I sat on a panel at SwissNex, discussing sustainability in business. The panelists represented a wide range of industries, from a start-up software entrepreneur to a leadership expert at a major grocery chain and a research scientist from a global food producer. Each had a story to tell about their field and the conversation was lively. As the lone designer in the bunch, however, I often felt like I was speaking a different language.

When we think of sustainability we often attack the root of the problem directly. The Earth is warming because of our impact, we're surrounding ourselves with trash and products that reek of planned obsolescence, and oceans are either dying or turning into massive gyres of floating plastic. It's clear to a vast majority of us that humans are responsible for creating this global problem, and that we need to alter our worldview significantly to address it. It's the way we sell that new world to consumers and businesses worldwide that isn't as easy to discern.

While there are as many perspectives and potential solutions as there are sustainability activists, I see three leading worldviews emerging to dominate the discussion.

In the first, a straightforward commodity-based approach to sustainability creates a world of green products, each costing marginally less than their less-sustainable competition. The theory that people shop primarily by price allows the market to self-correct towards sustainable production. A push from governments that might subsidize the cost of some products and ban others would provide additional leverage for sustainable manufacturers. But this approach doesn't change an underlying issue: our throwaway culture and the shoddy design of most of our systems, services, devices, machines and tools.

The second approach creates a premium around "green" products; the consumer may spend a little more on a product but they do so with the knowledge that they're "doing their bit." Things like cars become status symbols for a way of life, ideally converting others to the cause and demonstrating through the market the validity of their existence. This approach plays on a consumer's desire to differentiate, stand apart and above their neighbors—although transforming sustainability from a necessity into a trend has a steep downside when green is no longer "cool."

The third perspective is predicated on a return to natural systems, from agriculture to manufacturing to lifestyle. We're all familiar with variations on this theme, ranging from farmers' markets and local food movements to organic footwear and fair-trade clothing. By getting closer to the means of production, the consumer theoretically has a better understanding of the process and appreciation for the efforts that bring them their goods. In some parts of the country local, sustainable production IS sustainable, but in the majority it is not. To disseminate this model things will have to be shipped longer and longer distances. This results in confusion and mistrust as terms and concepts get muddied and as producers designate an ever-widening swath of product offerings as "sustainable" when in fact they are not.

My personal belief is that the most sustainable things are those that remain with us. These typically go beyond trend or fad and incorporate an open-ended narrative that consumers can embrace and co-create. Regardless of their material they are rendered sustainable because people identify with, and grow to love them, saving them from the landfill once their original purpose is fulfilled. Our goal as designers should be to create products that people love. When I voiced this opinion among the executives on the panel, I felt as if I was bringing idealism to a pragmatic gunfight. Culturally we're often a little uncomfortable with feelings, and as product designers we've followed the dictum that "form follows function" for too long. Designing products that consumers use but don't identify with limits people's affection and desire to transform objects into cherished possessions. The propensity to discard last year's model for the latest and greatest (no matter how green) only contributes to the destructive and unsustainable cycle of mass consumption.

Clearly it won't be a single solution that counters consumerism, shipping, manufacturing and status assertion; instead it'll be the combination of all the views above—plus a dozen others we may not have yet considered. As designers we recognize that considering usability and cost is part of the equation, but not the only thing; that making something look cool is only half the battle; and that clarity of purpose and storytelling go a long way. The best solution is one that often seems least likely or most unexpected. The trick is to look beyond today's metrics of success, to continue searching and refining, and to remain open to endless possibilities. Only through constant iteration, critique and reevaluation will we be able to solve the sustainability issue. And only by looking orthogonally at it will we be able to recognize and address the underlying causes and results.

Most Popular
In this article: