Sustainable Design (And Other Myths)

2011-04-18 00:00:00 +0000 — Bolton Hill, Baltimore, MD

Hearing about one more product made of a new, sustainable material and/or produced thanks to clean, green energy without any other thinking applied to the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing models is going to give me an aneurysm. Considering any object “sustainable design” purely because a material was changed for a less-bad option is ludicrous. Sustainability isn’t about slightly improving the status quo, it is about actual change.

The materials your kitchen counter top, automobile, shampoo, and tennis shoes are made of aren’t the only things making them un-sustainable—it is the whole system that they live within. Unsustainable piles of superfluous objects are the manifestation of the bizarre way our society interacts with and understands “stuff”. Replacing one material in an everyday object with a “sustainable” supplement doesn’t change the fact that we all own too many ridiculous, unnecessary, something-er-others.

I am not saying that more responsible materials aren’t necessary—they are—but what is more important is that we make more responsible objects themselves. This is a very indirect way of saying stop making crap.

Understand this: little we design today actually fulfills any real needs. Sure we might make squeezing a lemon easier or a subway stop more noticeable, but at the end of the day, most design just adds to the piles of ephemera, noise, and the un-sustainable. If we aren’t consciously accepting this and changing our design patterns, languages, and societal mores as a result, we will never make any sustainable design.

If a new design (with or without renewable materials) somehow replaces the need for other objects, or changes how consumers want to interact with a product, or magically reinvents how products are made and sold, then we’re starting to get somewhere.