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The Dilemma of understanding Sustainable Design

Sustainable design is a unique combination of two concepts: Sustainability and Design.

Perhaps the most common understanding of sustainability is drawn from a 1987 UN paper that defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

And then there’s the varying usage of the word “design.” There are many fields of specialization within the design profession such as architecture, fashion, experience design, interiors, interactive design, graphic design, product design, and web design, each with its own parlance and practices.

However, the basic lack of understanding about "Sustainable" and "Design” means there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding and misintepretation of the meaning of both words.

The biggest misunderstanding is to use “Sustainable Design” to describe the act of creating less bad versions of something unsustainable. For instance, designing cars with more efficient internal combustion engines doesn’t actually erase their impact on the environment, despite how car manufacturers tout their green vehicles.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as clean coal. Cleaner burning is definitely an option, but the problem is that we cannot burn fossil fuels at all if we want to be sustainable.

Compounding the confusion is the dizzying array of seals, certificates, green stickers and “eco labels.” Originally conceived so consumers can swiftly recognize conscientiously-made goods and services, the legions of eco-themed emblems on product packaging and signage can sow confusion. As much as there’s no universal definition of sustainable design, there’s also not one globally accepted symbol for it.

Even advocates of “Sustainable Design” don’t always like the term, arguing that the goals associated with it have proven to be too narrow. “Regenerative Design" does a better job of capturing the field’s goals from an environmental perspective.

In general, most brands are often too focused on talking up their sustainability efforts. It would be great if they could change or gradually tweak upon their mindset, as while to sustain is merely only to maintain, but to regenerate is to restore.

For those companies, organisations and individuals who have been involved in sustainable design for 30 years or more, it is painful to accept how badly sustainability has failed to prevent the multiple environmental crises from worsening. The implication, and all too often the reality, has been that fully sustainable simply meant ‘100% less bad.

To surmise, we urgently need to shift to optimize positives and repair the damage done to our life support systems.


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