Why does sustainability need beauty?

As an MBA candidate immersed in studying the business case for sustainability, I would have been dumbfounded by the question, "Why does sustainability need beauty?" I can imagine my former self laughing and then quickly returning to a cost accounting case study.

That was more than 10 years ago. Working in the textile industry, I've become more attuned to fashion (I even know the 2014 Pantone color of the year). But the past few months have brought forward the question in more profound ways than color-coordinating with Radiant Orchid.

In March, Interface hosted a two-day workshop that brought together design and sustainability leaders from 20 architecture firms to explore how to "bridge the divide in the design world between beauty and sustainability." Between that event and the Living Future unConference, with its "Beauty and Inspiration" theme, I had the opportunity to develop a better response than dismissive laughter to the question of why beauty matters in my chosen career.

Beauty beyond aesthetics

I've learned that beauty isn't something you observe as much as it's something you experience. It's multi-sensorial, yes, but even more than that, beauty is elegance at a systems level. I found implications of this lesson in terms of engagement as well as systems design.

Deep beauty is universally engaging. Perhaps, as E.O. Wilson believes, we respond to beauty because it is simply "our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival." In that case, ask yourself, when was the last time you saw deep beauty in your work?

During the Interface retreat, architects and designers delved into the seeming divide between beautiful design and sustainable design and considered why these aren't currently one and the same. Taking this further, I wonder: Should the sustainability movement be promoting images of distraught polar bears stranded on melting ice? These images may be engaging, but they engage our sense of pity, not wonder. The CFL bulb became the dubious icon of our movement, but the bulb itself, and the light it produces, hardly can be called beautiful.

But why does sustainability need beauty? Because doom and gloom images are not winning over the hearts of others. Despair is ugly; hope is beautiful. We need to leverage deep beauty to transform our movement from being based in the intellectual to being rooted in the visceral. Deep beauty can help us do that, engaging more of the skeptical public than a singular focus on scientific reason. The graceful lines of a Tesla are important to the success of sustainable transportation, sparking a love affair from our gut first and our brain second.

Toward beautiful externalities

Prior to pursuing business, I was an environmental economist, and externalities were our currency. In my work, I became resigned to the inevitability of negative externalities: the social and environmental costs borne by society at large, not captured within our current economic system.

(Credit: Coldspring)Externalities and their impacts, including climate destabilization and widespread pollution of our water supply, are ugly. These markers of an inefficient market shaped my approach to sustainability, and I used to think of "internalizing the negative externalities" as my personal battle cry — which may be about as inspiring as a CFL.

As Jason McLennan said at the Living Future unConference, "Beauty is our secret weapon, because what we want to change is ugly." Here is a compelling battle cry that allows us to visualize not only the theoretical talk of ugly externalities (such as impoverished children picking through piles of e-waste) but also the beauty embedded in the promise of solving these unintended consequences of our industrial system (imagine those same children with access to education, food and water).

What will the world look like when we can design solutions where the consequences of our systems — intended or unintended — are beneficial? Imagine the beauty of a future where our industrial systems contribute to healthy lives on this planet, providing income as well as healthy air, soil and water.

I don't think anyone believes this level of systems re-design will be easy, but to paraphrase Ray Anderson, we have to start somewhere (anywhere), and if not us, then who? Our Net-Works partnership provides a tantalizing glimpse of what these beneficial system consequences could be: replacing virgin petroleum-based raw materials (negative externalities aplenty) with used fishing nets harvested by Filipino villagers (inclusive business generating positive community, ecological and economic benefits).

Perhaps R. Buckminster Fuller, the father of systems thinking in design, saw past the false dichotomy when he said, "When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." I now see that the emergence of deep beauty in business is not laughably insignificant, but may in fact offer confirmation that we are heading in the right direction — and doing so in a way that will inspire others to join us.

Top image of orchid by Don Urban via Flickr.