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Is sustainable design an impossibility?

I once read an interview with someone working in the field of sustainable design; and he was saying how of course it would be great if products could be made to last using sustainable resources and so on, but that it didn’t work as a business model. Which seems true enough: modern businesses need an ongoing market so there needs to be change, whether that’s through ageing materials or dated designs. So we have these creative industries churning out new looks each year, each season, each month.

As I wrote in Values and the economic, I just wonder at the deeper wisdom of all this. If a system requires novelty and consumption in order to sustain itself, and therefore cultivates this mind-set of trends, identity and belonging; then how can we avoid creating waste or draining resources? Is the notion of sustainable design more one of window-dressing, that appeals to certain values but ultimately doesn’t attempt to redress the fundamental problem? And do we truly “need” these things, or are these largely manufactured desires that feed on our social desire to belong?

It’s an interesting scenario, and one that ties in with both Relating to cultural benchmarks and How many things are cycles (we could break) in the sense of how culture blends with economics. As humans, it seems we want to belong and find our place in society; we want to relate ourselves to the options presented, crafting an identity and finding personal meaning in the eyes of others and relative to the cultural images surrounding us. There’s a beautiful magic there, but I do wonder to what extent this very human process is being exploited and the needs of the psyche being directed toward the material world of things.

Increasingly, it’s becoming established that “our look” (be that our shoes, interiors, or lifestyle) defines us; thereby locking our sense of identity into our position as consumers. How you decorate your home declares who you are; so keeping a perfectly functioning and good quality kitchen becomes unthinkable because it’s not quite “you”. This natural desire to express our selves has somehow become a fuel for consumerism.

And my intention here isn’t to be critical, because it seems humans are these delightfully unique, creative, and social creatures who long to express who they are and share in this process of exploration and definition. To me, that’s part of humanity and connects in with what I was saying in What makes a good life. But equally, with that post, there’s a question of how we balance our values, our priorities, our needs, and our consequences. What systems are we sustaining – and, in a sense, creating – with the choices we make?

As I’ve found myself saying elsewhere: is it possible to shape a more human system out of the world around us? Do we have little choice but to accept a version of this model whereby we seek identity in products that aren’t made to last, or could these things happen differently?

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