Balance is the key to sustainable consumption

The focus of my research is always sustainable design and living. Recently I have been predominantly engaged in what a life you can sustain and justify looks like, feels like, is like. I have benefitted greatly from looking at sustainable living this way: if sustainable living essentially means living a viable life that is justifiable on a longterm basis ethics become an important part of sustainable living. And of course consumption or the usage of products and things is a part hereof.

I am often asked if I have any tips on how to be a sustainable consumer using the theories from Aesthetic Sustainability – and I am always reluctant to answering this question. Not because I don’t find it important, but because my main aim when I develop my theories is to encourage radical reduction of consumption of newly made things created from virgin materials. Nevertheless, of course it is important to discuss sustainable consumption (or, as I prefer to call it, sustainable usage) of products. Because even if we manage to reduce our consumption radically, there will always be a need for functional, aesthetically nourishing things in human life.

In Aesthetic Sustainability I have developed an aesthetic strategy in order to provide the sustainable designer with a tool to be used in the design process in order to ensure that aesthetic value is charged into the design object. The strategy is based on the balance between an aesthetic experience founded on the pleasure of the familiar or the pleasure of the unfamiliar. Both kinds of aesthetic pleasure provides the recipient with satisfaction, however in very different ways.

The pleasure of the familiar is based on boosting the user’s comfort zone and making her/him feel comfortable, at ease, and accommodated by providing her/him with an instantly decodable, subtle, soothing design experience. Design objects created in accordance herewith are typically based on functionality, convenience, and on delicate aesthetic nourishment expressed in details and tactility, as they have a “quiet” expression or a subtle idiom.

The counterpoint, the pleasure of the unfamiliar, is all about challenging the receiver: shaking up her/his world and idea of product-categories, and questioning (unsustainable) habits and unfortunate habitual ways of usage. Products within this category are typically comfort zone breaking by having a loud, intrusive expression, or by forcing the user to stop her/his daily routine and wonder for a while.

Notebook made from recycled cardboard and paper by Slinat

The reason I am bringing up these two different ways of working aesthetic sustainability into a design object in relation to sustainable consumption is that they are useful guidelines to have in mind when shopping for e.g. clothes or furniture.

I have things that are subtle and can be used for many occasions; things that are functional, comfort providing and make me feel cozily camouflaged. And I have things that are loud and expressive; things that challenge the way I wear and use everyday objects and that are vivid and colourful. The mix of these things is what makes it possible for me to reduce my consumption radically. The balance they create in my wardrobe and my home nourishes me and makes me feel comfortably full and satisfied.

So, I guess my best advice for sustainable consumption is creating a balance in our physical belongings: a balance between pleasurable familiarity and pleasurable unfamiliarity. Sustainable consumption advices often lean towards buying minimalistic, subtle, smooth things, as they can be mixed and matched with other things easily and can be used for multiple occasions. Furthermore the thought is generally that dim colours and a subtle idioms are longlasting because one doesn’t get tired of looking at them. And while that might be true to an extend (but only to an extend, because the boredom this leads to typically results in overconsumption of trendy, short-lived accessories that can spice up things a little), I think that underestimating the aesthetic nourishment that comes with roughness, vivid colour combinations and unconventional shapes and materials is wrong.

According to ancient Ayurvedic wisdom a complete meal that leaves you satisfied without a need for consuming more is a balancing act between all six flavours (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent), and similarly a balance must be created between different “flavours” in our wardrobe and home in order for us not to feel unsatisfied or in a constant need for more. Balance is the key to sustainable consumption.

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