Every Spring I assign the same exam question to my Sustainable Design students at Ryerson University School of Interior Design: “What is sustainable design?” I keep hoping that one of them will come up with an answer that makes sense and that I can use. Now, writing in Huffington Post, Huffington Post, Architect and author Lance Hosey takes a swing at sustainability and notes that “The word doesn’t mean what many seem to think.”
Many now consider the word meaningless, overused, tired and boring. But Lance believes it still has a role to play:
Lance goes on to note that with the economic recession the whole idea of sustainability got put on the back burner.
In 1994, John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line“ to clarify sustainability as the integration of social, economic, and environmental value. I can think of nothing of value that doesn’t fall into one or more of these categories. Family, friendship, love—these are social values. In other words, sustainability encompasses literally everything. Yet, one of the most common complaints I hear from my peers and colleagues is, “My clients don’t care about sustainability.” If it includes everything, then you’re saying your clients don’t care about anything. No one is that apathetic.
A 2013 survey of CEOs by Accenture and UN Global Impact showed that a majority felt a lack of financial resources was the single largest barrier. “We are concentrating on strategies for today,” said one executive, “not strategies for tomorrow.”
He also shows this image from the Shelton Group’s Buzz on Buzzwords report, where when asked “What is your reaction to the word “sustainable” when used to describe a product (or a company’s manufacturing practices)?” only 59 percent thought it really desirable or positive. The report notes that “ this may be because it’s a word with multiple meanings, and consumers generally aren’t big fans of nuance. Also, the intellectual overtones of this word may be a turn-off for some respondents.” (interestingly, “green” polled much better at 65 percent desirable, and “Even more interesting, this result did not vary by political affiliation: 67% of Democrats thought it was desirable compared to 62% of Republicans – a statistically insignificant difference.”)
Lance suggests that fatigue set in, quoting local food advocate and author Douglas Gayeton: “They have climate fatigue because of terms like ‘carbon debt’: They didn’t really get it the first time, and they didn’t know what it meant the 20th time, so they just sort of tuned out.” Again, short termism. We have seen this on TreeHugger; one of the reasons we do so few posts on carbon and climate change is that frankly, nobody reads them. We have been unable to find the words, and the terms that make the meaning and the intent clear. And as we learned in the recent American election, people are far more worried about jobs than they are about carbon.
Sustainability isn’t a trend, it’s an ethic, and it can never become unfashionable, even if its language does. The challenge for those of us who champion the idea is to continue to find new ways—and new words—to inspire change. “In the end,” observed Baba Dioum in 1968, “we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Words to live by, especially here at TreeHugger. Read them all on Huffington Post.
As an appendix to this, I was struck by the similarity to one of the better exams I marked last spring by student Trevor Thompson, answering the question “What is sustainable design?” Here is part of what he wrote.
Sustainable design is a term with a definition that can change by the year, decade, or generation. It is an ongoing challenge to find a term that people, organizations, builders, manufacturers, and governments can agree on. Everybody looks at sustainable design in a slightly different way with ideas for what should be included and left out. This gets in the way of having a standardized term.
The three pillars of sustainability that design must meet are social, economic and environment. The economic pillar is the one that is deemed a priority by businesses and government, leaving the other two to be overlooked. The social and environment side are the first to have funding or programs cut during economic slowdowns. The economic pillar is the first to have a financial impact, but the social and environment pillars are the ones with long reaching impacts from the past into the future. The environment gives us quality of life and should be the first pillar acknowledged in all that we do. We have overlooked that and prioritized wealth, resource extraction, and ecosystem degradation. Our quality of life is decreasing as we separate ourselves from nature and the necessity for its success globally.