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Can We Ever Achieve Truely Sustainable Design

Can We Ever Achieve Truely Sustainable Design?

By Andrew Craig, NPD Manager, June 2014

You cannot escape the torrent of ‘green’ or ‘eco’ products and services available today as marketing gurus compete to show off their latest energy rated / carbon offset triumphs. The rise in environmental awareness is admirable but when I spot the use of the term sustainable, I start to worry that a lot of what I see is potentially misleading.

Whether to tick a consumer / corporate expectation or satisfy a legal requirement, ‘environmentally friendly’ design thinking is a necessity and I would struggle to identify a product or service which can go to market without some thought of environmental impact.

However, environmental impact as a selection criterion is only feasible while dealing with quantative information. For example you can buy an A+ rated appliance knowing that it will consume less electricity than a C rated counterpart as these ratings are based on numbers. Green and eco products can often be compared in this way as the incremental changes that made them more environmentally friendly can be quantified. Sustainability is harder to measure and compare between products.

Sustainability relates to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable products and services must be designed to address both social and environmental issues which go far beyond green and eco design philosophies. As such it is quite difficult to achieve pure sustainability. When I see a ‘sustainable’ product, I always wonder just how sustainable it really is.

If sustainability slips into the growing pile of mistreated terminology it will lose some of the value which should be attached to such an important term. If I want to select sustainable components for use within a design, can I trust the manufacturer to have the same definition of the term as I do? Surely a sustainable product can only be classified as such once vetted by someone appropriately qualified?

Thankfully a whole industry of specialists exists to spew forth a constant stream of new buzzwords and acronyms, no doubt conceptualised over a recycled mug of Rainforest Alliance certified biodiversity java. However when I see ‘sustainability experts’ quoting their greatest achievements as concepts, storyboards, frameworks and outline plans, I lose a little faith.

I am left wondering if we should rely on the marketed sustainability of engineering materials and components. Will their proper implementation within a design ensure the sustainability of my end product or do I dig deeper? Does sustainable + sustainable = sustainable?

Andrew Craig, NPD Manager