The word ‘sustainability’ carries with it several inherent meanings. I would categorize these into three different schools. So when we talk about “sustainability,” we can mean:
- The nature or environment
- The next generation, long-term thinking
- A system with self-supporting patterns
There is, I believe, no single correct definition for the word, because to think that one objective meaning can be extracted from one phrase is a fallacy. But if all of those are true, then what is the most helpful for us to use in this thinking?
1. The nature or environment
This is the school of thought that is perhaps the most clear in intent and execution, but also came early in the movement and are thus grossly overplayed. The idea is that that we must not destroy the environment that we lived in—where by “environment” we really mean “everything, not including humans.” It thinks of nature as resource, and human as consumers. And the only way to consume more is to conserve more. Thanks to its relative maturity and development (the relative maturity of the people who champions for this idea is another matter entirely,) the Nature/Environment school of thought is the one idea that we hear the most on public conversation and political/commercial rhetoric. Sure, the framework may be limited, but to many people, this school is the gateway drug to more awareness.
Between planting a tree, biking to work, buying locally, turning off electricity and buying carbon offsets and wind power, thinking in this manner, taking measurable actions toward sustainability is simple.
2. The next generation, long term thinking
The tenet: This school no longer sees human and nature as two separate parts, but rather, as inseparable whole, eternally interdependent of each other. Human stewards. Nature provides. The hope: by taking humanity into account and thinking about problems more in terms of what the next generation will face and less of what we will face, actions could be taken to solve future’s problem today. The clearest example of this thought in action is in the philosophy of “designing for the future.”
This is where things get a little more abstract. The action part of this school gets more into the process, rather than the implementation, of design. For instance: using biodegradable materials in design and modernizing manufacturing processes to achieve more efficiency and reduces waste in power. This school is where the thinking that being sustainable will not only benefit the environment, but also the business, come from. Or, in other words, the thinking that “what’s good for the environment is good for business.”
3. A system with self-supporting patterns
This school takes the next generation idea further, by positing that, not only is human and nature inseparable, but their relationship forms a complex symbiosis. Way too complex, in fact, than any one of us could ever hope to understand—and so we have to think about it as one system. Move one node, and the whole grid is impacted. Do it right, and everything will go better.
In other words, in a system with self-supporting patterns, we’ve changed the pattern too much into ones that inform the system to move in a direction that is not necessarily in our best interest.
In its purest form, this school rejects abstraction by saying that it only distances us away from the problem-at-hand, in favor of taking every single factor possible into consideration when thinking about things.
The problem, they say, is that—to go back to our node-and-grid analogy above—we’ve moved both the wrong node and in the wrong direction too much that there are very few simple things we can do to repair it. Biking to work may save money, but is your bike made sustainably? Buying an organic food product may be better for the environment, but is all party involved in the process, from cradle to grave—from the land itself, then farmers, suppliers, businesses, advertising agencies to retail associates—compensated fairly, and worked in ways that not only takes the earth into account, but also works for the betterment of human development?
The most helpful definition
Though most complicated, abstract and impractical, the System–Patterns idea of sustainability fits our framework better. Here are some reasons why:
- Avoiding separation of Human–Nature as entities (or indeed, even acknowledging it) means divorcing from a Cartesian point of view
- Forgoing easy solutions with immediate effects (not because they’re necessarily bad, but because they’re most often oversimplified) means thinking of things as webs of relationship
- Acknowledging complexity and integrating it in the framework means that we’ll more likely to make better solution, if only for the fact that we put more time to think and plan before we actually implement
Where we went wrong
The Western world have just embraced these thoughts. This is good, and is certainly better than where we had been in the past. But this also means that we, our culture, didn’t grow up with these ideas, and thus couldn’t necessarily internalize it. Sure, we may do the right thing, but only when we try.
Let’s imagine for a moment that any thing that we do won’t actually harm nature. Would we still do things that will harm nature? It’s a safe bet that the answer is probably no. Given a world with no resistance, we probably won’t do things that would work with the earth, instead of against it, by natural tendency.
And this, the natural tendencies both manifested through and taught by culture, is where we went wrong.
Is there hope?
Yes. Eastern and other indigenous cultures developed and grew up with the notion of ecology. It’s just that we sometimes mistook it for unsophistication or tried to fit it into our cultural frameworks (as we naturally behave.)
For example: do you know that the Yin–Yang model does not imply a separation of Yin and Yang (much like how we separate light and dark, male and female, hot and cold, and so on), but rather, a dynamic interplay between the two? For instance, rather than implying that “absolute goodness” is better than “absolute evilness,” the Yin–Yang model explicitly stated that both good and evil must exist in order for the ideal to be achieved. And “perfect balance,” far from being a notion where everything is static and unchanged, instead imply a fluid, ever progressing movement where the two continually interact with each other.
I think that we should learn from them, and maybe start to adopt their way of living and thinking into our culture and business.
Design Business Environment: Where Sustainability Fits In
Today, we know that what’s good for the environment isn’t always good for business. It’s good for the right kind of business and not the others. A lot of businesses today realized that by touting themselves as being and acting sustainable, consumers are willing to pay a premium, thus creating higher profits.
This isn’t wrong, but if we are to take the System–Patterns principles and apply it here, it’ll be inadequate. These businesses are considering sustainability as a competitive advantage by rethinking design processes, distribution management, marketing efforts and other steps in the product lifecycle. But what if they consider ecology a core foundation, not just an added value? And what if they reinvent business (and profit) models, not just the processes?
Remember the two phrases often uttered in talks about new businesses?
- Good design makes good business
- Good environmental practice makes good business
I propose we change this into something along the lines of:
Good environmental principles helps make good design better, which in turn helps make good business.
What you can do today
Start with the environment as a core foundation. Don’t just “duct tape” it into your business, and don’t worry about taking every little detail into account at the micro-level either. If ecology informs and guides every one of your business element, you don’t even need to take it into account anymore. It’ll be second nature to how you operate, design and make profits. And, if you ask me, doing things out of nature is always easier.
And if we can make the process easier to more people, maybe we can also move toward a regional design business environment where sustainability is not just practiced, but internalized.
The future: is “sustainable design” the right term for the job?
If words influence the way we think, then we should start using terminologies that align with the way we want to be. In light of this discussion, “sustainable design” may be inappropriate. Consider the fact that the processes of learning, problem solving and creating, all parts of this whole we call “design,” is an inherently sustainable process. Better yet if it takes the principles discussed above into account.
But by taking the word “sustainable” and stick it next to “design,” we have created a separation between “sustainable design” and “non-sustainable design.” It’s true that the former is better than the latter. But design should not be thought of this way. “Sustainability” in the future, should be a function of “design” rather than an added feature. It’s like saying that a keyboard should be able to input alphabet characters, because it is made to do so.
Therefore, it should be just enough to, in the future, say “design” and expect “sustainability” to already be integrated fully into it.
Your job is to try these principles today.