Discussing sustainability and design in the same sentence makes sense. Primarily it makes economic sense because it means using fewer resources to make more ‘stuff’. This eco-efficient argument is well established, if not yet widely practised – which is surprising given the cost benefits associated with many of its strategies.

At an extraction stage we have an emphasis on using less natural resource and producing less byproduct, pollutant and hazardous waste. In manufacture there is a focus on material and energy efficiency, moving away from linear resource flows. In the use stage energy consumption is often the focus, while at end of life questions arise concerning secondary use, refurbishment, repair and recycling.

A strategic view

Perhaps one of the reasons why eco-efficiency is still in its infancy is that for these strategies to be realised a more integrated and strategic view of design is needed, recognising whole lifecycle impacts from product conception. Decisions made in the early stage of the design process account for 80-90% of the environmental impacts associated with a product (be it car, kettle or house).

Thinking about a product’s impacts is not something that can be added on at the end of the design process. However, until sustainability is normalised in design, this sort of activity will continue to happen until the costs of not integrating this viewpoint become too high to carry. Perhaps European legislation such as the End-of-Life Vehicles and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directives, which require firms to take back their products at the end of their life, will instigate a shift toward lifecycle thinking in product design.

Such initiatives have the potential to foster commercial opportunities within business to move away from a model of linear resource flows to one that retains control of resources across the whole product lifecycle. This cyclical approach to resource management constitutes a mindset change for manufacturing industry, moving away from a traditional focus on delivering hardware, towards innovation in terms of functionality and perhaps service provision.

Although eco-efficiency is very much where current concern is focused in thinking differently about design, it represents only one aspect of the sustainable development agenda – reducing environmental degradation. A whole sustainable development perspective seeks appropriate economic growth within ecological limits while allowing all communities to equitably flourish now and in the future.

Realising its potential

Choices made through design influence our everyday world, from buildings and cars to clothes and food. Given the links between design and our surroundings, the question is – how does design begin to realise its potential to influence change toward sustainability? It seems that design needs to change from a subject that encourages the throughput of a material economy to one that is underpinned by sufficiency and quality of life.

Such transformation – away from product obsolescence, material consumption and waste creation toward efficient products, community resilience and individual empowerment – requires different questions to be posed in design and manufacture. Rather than focusing on making what exists slightly better, here lies an opportunity to achieve alternative – perhaps radical – solutions.

Moving towards a system viewpoint

The latter is a longer-term strategy, and unless steps towards such a strategy begin now, on-going incremental improvements will not orient us quickly enough towards sustainability. The validity of this becomes more obvious when we consider that growing global perceptions of quality of life are based entirely around material consumption.

What is needed is a move away from product strategies to a system viewpoint that asks questions of designers concerning the requirements of meeting human needs and closing resource loops in refocusing industrial activities to promote more sustainable lifestyles.

This all sounds rather disruptive – and it is. The choice is either to ignore the decreasing availability of natural capital or acknowledge these limits and seek competitive and alternative visions for how business best serves society and its own interests in working towards sustainable goals.

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