What does Sustainability actually mean?

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sus·tain·a·bil·i·ty

[suh-stey-nuh-bil-i-tee]

noun

1. the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.

2. Environmental Science . the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance: The committee is developing sustainability standards for products that use energy.

So sustainability can be defined in two ways according to the dictionary. But what does this mean in terms of design? In my mind there are still two definitions. The first, meaning to design products which can help us live a lifestyle where we can support ourselves, not relying on energy from fossil fuels, or minerals from the earth. New products will help to create a cycle, which is both less consuming and less polluting. The second definition, I consider to be more related to the materials we use in our products, and the life cycle from raw materials to end of use. This focusses on making existing products better for the environment.

Product Life Cycle

In recent years, the word ‘sustainability’ has become one of the most annoying in the english language. Not only is it continuously used in the wrong context, devoid of its real meaning, but it is overused persistently by both politicians and the marketing industry. ‘Green’ and ‘carbon footprint’ are in the same boat.

And that boat is sinking…

This is not to say we have not come a long way in terms of ‘that word’. Almost all companies now use sustainability reports, strategies and ‘greener’ product lines, using more efficient methods and healthier materials. But there is a lot of ‘jumping on the band wagon’ and perhaps few companies who actually believe in making a change. According to the forums I’ve been reading recently, a lot of Americans think global warming is a big hoax, and that their gas guzzling 4 x 4’s aren’t affecting the environment at all. A lot of people out there also claim that the fact we have driven almost 1000 species to extinction is just natural selection, not our fault at all. Are we all just too afraid to accept responsibility for the negative impact our species have had on everything else but ourselves? Anyway, I digress. Some solutions can actually help us make a change, such as the eco-machines I mentioned previously. But unless the solution is coming from nature, it’s hard to ignore the environmental impact advancing technology can have. Biomimicry often focuses on nature’s techniques, but applies them to technology. If nature doesn’t need electricity to function, why do we?

Never believe a plastic cup

Most efforts to improve ‘that word’ have had a green approach, focussing on my second definition regarding materials. Companies look at their existing products, scratch their chins and ask “Can we make it recyclable?”. The most likely answer is yes, as almost anything can now be ‘recycled’ in one form or another, but recycling can only help us so much. There has to be a social understanding and a culture for it to survive in. Recent corn-based polyactic acid (PLA) plastic cups for instance, are branded with the slogan “This cup is made from corn, environmentally sustainable, and 100% compostable”. Innocent consumers then go out and buy these cups, feeling great about themselves and relishing the good karma. But what they haven’t been told, is that the cups are only compostable if heated at 60 degrees for 3 months. They are also categorised as a number 7 plastic, which means they cannot be recycled in any standard programs. And if it gets chucked in the bin, it will take up to 1000 years to decompose entirely. So whether it’s composted, recycled or chucked in the bin, its doing more harm than good! This feels like a bit of a trick to me, and one which I hope is not occuring without my knowledge. How much of the stuff I recycle is actually reaching the recycling plants and avoiding landfill? And what about all the stuff that I technically can recycle, but I have no idea where or how to? Broken products that I eventually just toss out, and packaging which isn’t suitable for the blue bins in my garden.
This all highlights that ‘that word’ needs to be reinvented, or at least upgraded. But we also need to take a step back, and assess whether the efforts so far are really enough. In the next 50 years the population is going to expand to unprecidented amounts, and the fossil fuels and natural materials will be wearing thin. But we know this. The government knows this. So when is the big change going to come? Once all of us consumers have finally accepted it and the government are brave enough to implement change? Of course there is going to be carnage. People are ignorant in terms of the state we are in. But is that the consumer’s fault, or is it that of the companies who are only targeting environmental sustainability, not humanitarian, and fooling us into thinking they are Robin Hood? We can invent products for a new future, one in which we can sustain our own lifestyles and participate with our natural surroundings, but unless the marketing industry stops confusing consumers as to the meaning of sustainability, people won’t buy them. They’ll keep buying their plastic cups and think they’re saving the world. Sigh.

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