Understanding sustainability Understanding sustainability Foto: Tibbe Smith

Understanding sustainability

06 november 2015

Sustainability is a broad concept, and the word can have many different meanings and definitions dependent on context and on cultural and societal understandings. The following text is an attempt to show how diverse sustainability is and to encourage you, as a designer, to define your own view on sustainability, take a stand point and communicate your view.

By Tibbe Smith

 

Anthropocentric Sustainability

In the UN report Our Common Future from 1987, sustainability is defined as:

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‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ 1

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This definition describes a sustainable development from the perspective of resources available to people. This explanation is considered to be an efficient outline of the message of the report and many refer to this when asked to define sustainability. However, the phrase seems to be inefficient, as it is not possible to summarize a whole report, with many themes and messages, in just one sentence. Our Common Future explains that their use of need describes the essential needs of people who are living in poverty. However, when used out of context, the word ‘need’ is not sufficiently clear.

Living in a country like Denmark, many basic needs are taken for granted and this affects what is considered as needs. We are generally concerned with the top two categories in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Products to our satisfaction are even compromising basic physiological needs for other people; needs like health and food. Thus we are already in one and the same time period compromising the needs of others.2 As we are living in a largely material culture where over-consumption is already putting the future of our Earth at risk, the explanation of sustainability as it is phrased in Our Common Future seems like an inadequate definition.

Our perception of sustainability is understood in an anthropocentric perspective.3 When we describe sustainability, we understand the problems and solutions in a perspective, which puts the human race as masters of the Earth and the other species that inhabit it. This is also the underlying discourse in the UN definition of the term. The importance of other species and healthy ecosystems are described in the report, however, it seems as it is understood more as a necessity of existence rather than life in its own right. The consequence of perspective can be that we forget to respect other life, other animals and the Earth as being entitled to life as we feel the human race is.

Another challenge with our approach to sustainability is that we are trying to solve a problem with the same mindset that caused it in the first place. In Chapman’s opinion, sustainable design is treating a system rather than the cause. Design lacks philosophical depth and he describes the consumerist word as an inherently flawed system, which offers little if any respect to using recycled or biodegradable materials, as the system is still characterized by over-consumption.4

Chapman further questions if we actually understand what it includes. The word sustainability is widely overused for everything around us, which in turn causes the word to lose meaning and become inconsequential and hollow.5 Walker (2005) describes sustainable develop as a mythical narrative in society, similar to religion, because this narrative offers a completeness, an entire vision. Walker emphasises that seeing sustainable development as a ‘myth’ does not make it less important, but allows for us to see it from a different perspective. It is important to consider what this new narrative means in our society and for our personal lives.6

There is no common essence in sustainable design. Many approaches have been developed, which vary with place, time, environment, culture and knowledge. As we do not know what a sustainable future looks like, we are not able to define whether one approach is better than another. Hence, we cannot point to specific sustainable solutions. However, as we are able to identify what can be defined as unsustainable, we can test new methods and solutions based on that knowledge.7

In consequence, an exploration of new methods, approaches and criteria are essential, but we have to be aware that we cannot define them as being sustainable.8

 

Definition of Sustainability

The findings and discussion in this chapter prove that the concept of sustainability is being used in a very broad sense and for that reason I believe it is important to clarify what is understood by it, when working with this term. Without knowing what a sustainable future looks like, we cannot identify solutions as sustainable, but we can identify which are not. This knowledge can guide us and serve as a frame for us to experiment with new methods and solutions, which with time can be defined as being unsustainable or not.

With a starting point in fashion, a definition of sustainability will be directed by the fact that fashion serves to meet not only basic needs of humans to be protected from the cold, but also satisfying needs for social status and belonging and needs of expressing one’s personality, values and beliefs.

Sustainability can shortly be described as follows; it does not compromise human rights; it does not compromise the quality of life for other beings; and it supports biodiversity and does not harm nature. Sustainability is democratic in the sense that all voices are heard and respected, as well as the ones who do not speak, like plants, animals and Earth.

This perception of sustainability is relevant in all phases, from the beginning of the design process to the life of the product is over. In fashion, a concept is developed, a product is designed and from choice of material, and manufacturing process to selling, distributing, use and lastly disposal the impact of the product should be considered. As mentioned, we cannot define a product as sustainable, but we should define whether or not a product can be characterized as unsustainable.

However, as it easily becomes awkward to say that something may not be unsustainable, attempts and views can be described as sustainable or ethical, keeping in mind that this is descriptive of an aim rather than being an ultimate classification of the method or product it refers to.

 

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Notes
1 UN, 1987, p. 41
2 Footprintnetwork, 2014
3 Chapman, 2005, p. 21
4 Chapman, 2005, p. 9
5 Chapman, 2005, p. 23
6 Walker, pp. 26-27
7 Walker, 2006, p. 119
8 Walker, 2006

 

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References

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