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Designing sustainability: Radical changes to the material world

This is an excerpt from "Designing Sustainability: Making radical changes in a material world," Routledge, 2014.

The design and production of consumer products has been on a steeply rising trajectory of innovation and growth for decades. The impacts have been enormous and while, undoubtedly, many of these have been positive, the products themselves, the methods employed and the side effects of their production, use and disposal are, in a multitude of ways, severely damaging in terms of practical meaning and the natural environment; social meaning and ideas of equity and justice; and personal meaning and the creation of conditions supportive of the spiritual self.

Today’s most widely distributed, often least enduring, technological products are designed, produced, distributed and marketed by global-scale corporations whose priorities are largely incompatible with traditional understandings and values that seek to harmonize the inner person with outer activities and the world in general through ways that, crucially, include service, and concern for others. Scientific and technological advancements have provided us with unprecedented power over nature, yet, in pursuit of profits, use of that power has tended to work against the common good.

This disparity with personal meaning is fundamentally linked to social equity and justice, and to respect for the natural environment. For these reasons, it would seem that any attempts to invoke substantive, meaningful change through design — or any other discipline for that matter — within the current corporate milieu would be a hiding to nothing. Attempting to internalize, within the company’s economic accounting, problematic aspects of design and production for reasons of right action and ethical responsibility — aspects that are today consciously externalized — would have financial implications and therefore would conflict with the raison d’être of the organization.

Approaches are needed that internalize costs, develop knowledge and skills, and nurture community, that provide good work, that yield products people can be proud of making, and which can be appreciated and cared for. This would mean fewer, more expensive, more lasting products, which is entirely commensurate with reducing levels of consumption — an inescapable implication of sustainability. We can attempt to reduce consumption by proposing programs such as to fly less, eat local and switch off.

But if considered in isolation, such well-meaning, self-imposed schemes, often perceived as a form of austerity, are likely to yield only failure, guilt and disillusionment because the whole trajectory of Western societies and economies is going in the other direction — a direction that depends on, and constantly encourages, consumption.

Redressing the imbalance in our contemporary worldview to give greater recognition to age-old understandings that foster wisdom and inner development could yield more fundamental, lasting change. This would mean developing ways of living and ways of creating wealth that value being rather than having. Such a direction would recognize the importance of substantive values — ethics and social responsibility — and of spirituality and questions of ultimate meaning and purpose.

Both are critical elements of an examined life and essential ingredients of a personally meaningful interpretation of sustainability. These factors, if given higher priority, would naturally lead to an outlook and an ethos less preoccupied with external pursuits that require consumption.

Expanding and reconstituting Elkington’s well-known Triple Bottom Line into a Quadruple Bottom Line that recognizes deeper notions of human meaning begins to move us from a knowledge economy based on what we can do, towards a wisdom economy based on what we should do. Such a direction would recognize the importance of knowledge acquisition but would place greater emphasis on priorities and practices that attain to wisdom via the examined life and development of inner values.

The Quadruple Bottom Line of Sustainability

Reproduced from Designing Sustainability by S. Walker, Routledge, 2014.

A system that values wisdom, that combines knowledge with right judgement, would serve the common good through its attainment to virtue, and would reduce impacts on the natural environment because it would necessarily begin to moderate the place and significance of material goods in our ideas of the good life.

Greater appreciation of the contribution to human understanding of the core teachings contained within the traditional worldview, variously expressed by all the great philosophies and religions, can provide a sense of orientation and direction to life. Inherently, they steer us away from many of those contemporary preoccupations that are so closely associated with unsustainable practices — particularly our seemingly obsessive relationship with technological progress, growth, and consumerism. The inclusion of spirituality within understandings of sustainability can begin to reverse the direction of motivation — from an external imposition of rules, regulations, and sanctions to an internally driven, volitional repositioning of priorities. This would yield a more comprehensive approach to our design endeavours because it would include:

  • a moderated, more environmentally responsible direction in the provision of material benefits;

  • increased attention to social responsibility and justice;

  • orientation and direction through inner growth and a sense of personal meaning.

This more balanced approach would have major implications for design, production and, more generally, the way we do business. Practices related to materials extraction, manufacturing, labor conditions, product disposal, and economics, among others, would necessarily have to change. Such change, however, is to be welcomed because it would redirect our efforts away from the current, self-destructive, inherently unsustainable path, and lead us in a more positive and more hopeful direction.

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