Is Sustainable Design Wearing Thin?

sustainable design photo

Image credit: Susan Serra, CKD, used under Creative Commons license.

TreeHugger was founded as a sustainable design blog. From Alan Chochinov's 10 steps for sustainable design, through Yves Behar's predictions for sustainable design in 2011, to the classic design manifesto of Cradle to Cradle, the discipline has certainly offered some substantive contributions to a greener world (including at least one naked, wet TreeHugger). But we'd be lying if we said it was all good. As my colleague and friend Jerry Stifelman once wrote, originality matters, and it's easy for sustainable design to slip into cliches. In fact, some say sustainability has drained the sexiness from design all together, and it's about time we put it back.

Sustainable Design as an Aesthetic
Writing over at The Guardian, Justin McGuirk laments that sustainable design is wearing thin. From "matronly browns and little green arrows", to a slavish adherence to kraft paper, recycled cardboard, and an aversion to anything plastic, sustainable design has—says McGuirk—painted itself into a worthy but restrictive corner, and consequently it's limiting both its potential influence, and its actual ability to do any good:

"I trawled through a few books on sustainable design, such as The Eco-Design Handbook and 1000 New Eco Designs and Where to Find Them. The majority of work in this area is not particularly impressive. Most conforms to a material palette we think of as sustainable - lots of wood, cardboard and paper - or makes a show of using recycled materials. In that respect, there is a kind of sustainable design aesthetic, and it comes in shades of brown. Plastic rarely features, no doubt due to an instinctive feeling that it's inherently bad for the environment, even though plastic is sometimes the most environmentally friendly material for the job. It uses less energy to manufacture than glass or metal, and it's lighter to transport. The trick is to keep it out of landfills."

Cradle-to-Cradle Becomes Excuse for Consumption?
Even the famous Cradle-to-Cradle folks get short shrift, with McGuirk arguing that it is more of an excuse for endless consumption than a real path to genuine sustainability. The answer, he says, is to "buy fewer things that we value more." As someone who once wrote that we need to learn to love our stuff, I couldn't agree more.

Sustainability has a lot to offer design, but it will fail if it becomes a genre, aesthetic or niche rather than a guiding principle.

More on Sustainable Design and Materialism
Material Possessions are Not Evil: Learn to Love Your Stuff
Alan Chochinov's 10 Steps for Sustainable Design
Yves Behar's Predictions for Sustainable Design in 2011
Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

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