Friday, 26 March 2010

Learning To live Sustainably- how can design contribute ?

For most people the word “sustainable” has connotations of hard work, mud huts, low quality, and inferior life styles. It’s disappointing that something so important and influential has been marketed to people in such a way that it provokes a negative reaction. I believe that it is time we changed this distorted attitude and advertised the fact that sustainable design can be modern and inspiring. With the help of designers, reshaping the consumer world may not be as daunting as it first appears.

The problem lies in the attitude towards sustainable design. While a lot of people are happy to embrace change for a better future the simple fact is the consumer shouldn’t have to. Various industries have been producing goods for centuries without a second thought as to their life cycle. The irony of the life cycle of products at the moment is it’s linear—not a cycle at all. This means that products go through a wasteful process from extraction to production, distribution, consumption and finally to landfill or incineration.

Instead of taking resources from the earth, changing them by mixing them with chemicals, which then make the product unable to be reused or be returned to the earth, we should be adopting a “cradle to cradle” method so that everything that is taken from the earth is carefully manufactured so that at the end of its life cycle when it is no longer of use it can naturally biodegrade. In the book Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart discuss the possibility of our existence without a destructive presence. Some examples of “cradle to cradle” design are producing thriving businesses such as DESSO, a carpet manufacturer whose product, once used, are able to return its nutrients back to the earth.

Advances in technology have already changed the way we consume, instead of having to leave our homes to buy a product we can look it up on the internet and it can be delivered the next day. Why then can technology not also change the way we produce the things we consume so easily? Until now, perhaps because it has been seen as a cost; today, however, this view is increasingly being challenged. In an article by Reed business Information written by senior editor Kevin Campbell describes businesses that have had a positive reaction from turning their production methods green. Dr Alan Hecht, the director of sustainability at the US Environmental Protection Agency says in The road to sustainability “What I have found, what’s really happening the last five, ten years is that more and more companies are beginning to see sustainability not as a constraint but as a growth”

However it is not all the fault of the producers: we demand goods in massive quantities and at lower costs, but the industry arguably exploits this claiming simply to be responding to consumer demand. In the move towards sustainability, industry should take the lead. After all they do the most harm, and now with the most power they should be the ones to start the ball rolling.

It is understandable that industry is hesitant to adopt such a radical transformation because it is difficult to see the long term gains when very few others have taken the step to a sustainable future. Ray Anderson is the founder of Interface, an influential business in the field of sustainable production. Since 1995 his company has been trying to reduce their ecological footprint and make production sustainable. Their results have been nothing short of inspiring. They have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 82%, fossil fuel consumption by 60% and water usage by 70%, whilst increasing sales by two thirds and doubling their profits. The company intends to be carbon neutral by 2020 by following their plan, “mission zero”. Speaking at the TED 2009 conference, Anderson pointed out the “Business logic of sustainability”. He said “ Mission zero has been incredibly good for business. A better business model, a better way to bigger profits”. In their pursuit of zero waste they have produced a saving of £400,000,000 which more than paid off the original costs for their sustainable transformation. This is clear evidence that industry cannot deny and an extremely strong case for change.

However the process starts with designers. The designers should also be responsible. Everything that is produced by industry has to be designed, and I believe it is my job as a designer to ensure my designs make no negative impact on the Earth. I want to be in the generation of designers that people will look back on and thank for creating the tipping point for sustainable design. My university is extremely aware of the issues surrounding sustainability and makes sure the students are too. My lectures have consistently mentioned the importance of considering sustainability. My most recent project was entirely based around sustainable design. This has been a great influence and has resulted in a great passion for me. I wish I had been made aware of it at an earlier age as bad habits are hard to change.

There’s no reason why the quality of design should be compromised in the quest for sustainability. There are great examples of sustainable design that look modern and fulfill the needs of people today. The Berkshire residence in California is a completely sustainable home that hasn’t had to sacrifice smart modern architecture and luxurious interiors. Sustainable design is opening up new style for interior design, inspiring designs like “brail wall flats” designed by “inhabit living” which are made from 100% bamboo pulp. Bamboo is an extremely renewable source of material; according to research conducted by “green by design” it can grow up to two inches in an hour in the right conditions.

The advances in sustainable design are vast. The inspirational field of biomimicry is great design with great ideas from great sources. Biomimicry is designing by taking inspiration from nature and the way nature has been solving design problems sustainably for millions of years. Designers working in this way have developed self-cleaning surfaces for use on building exteriors inspired by the lotus flower’s ability to clean itself. They are combating disease by creating surfaces based on the design of sharks’ scales, which create an inhabitable surface for bacteria to occupy. It is being used in hospitals and toilets, ultimately saving lives.

I am helping to re-design the world, a revolution bigger than industrialization. The world of sustainable design doesn’t scare me, it inspires and excites me. I look forward to living in a healthy world with you all one day.


Anderson, Ray, “The business logic of sustainability”, Ted talks, 2009

Biomimicry Institute, Website,

Brown, Rachel, “Taking on the Sustainability Challenge”, May 2009

Campbell, Kevin, The road to sustainability. (cover story),Feb 2008

Gina Pobers-Grey and Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD, Off-Gassing: Indoor Pollutants and Allergies, March 2009

KUEHN ROBERT(Georgsmarienhuette Gmbh, Georgsmarienhuette, Deu) GECK HANS GUENTER(Georgsmarienhuette Gmbh) SCHWERDTFEGER KLAUS(Technische Univ. Clausthal, Clausthal-zellerfeld, Deu), SIJ Int (Iron Steel Inst Jpn) “Continuous Off-gas Measurement and Energy Balance in Electric Arc Steelmaking”, 2005

Re:Modern Sustainable modern living, website,

McDonough William, Braungart Michael, “Cradle To Cradle”, North Point Press, 2002

Olson A Margot, Ruff Caimen Leigh, “The attitudes of interior design students towards sustainability”, 2009

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