What does sustainability mean?

This article is based on an opening passage in the last chapter of my new book Anti-trend (which will be published very soon and is available for preorder now).

A loved one reading the first printed edition of Anti-trend at Rüsters Coffee in Ubud, Bali

I am often met with the question of what the most sustainable design-object or the most sustainable way of life looks like, feels like, is like? And, my answer mostly goes somewhat like this: a sustainable design-object encourages reduction of consumption by offering longevity, repairability, openness, and rawness, and aligned herewith, sustainable living involves minimizing consumption and maximizing aesthetically nourishing, enduring rhythms.

The more elaborate answer sounds like this:

One of the main problems with the way we are currently consuming, which is excessive and gratuitous, is the way the things we consume are designed and the amount of waste produced. What is needed is fundamental change; a radical reduction of consumption since the overconsumption of things that are quickly perceived as obsolete, despite them being made out of long-lasting materials is what has led us to where we are now. We need to practice a lifestyle that is not only slightly, but al lot greener. We need to pursue alternatives to the status quo rather than convulsively hold on to what we are used to and familiar with. Our current codes of conduct, status symbols, and behavioral patterns in relation to consumption are outdated and guilty of destroying our ecosystems and draining our natural resources. They are, as previously discussed, guilty of leading to despair, oppression, and increased inequality between populaces

Instead of returning our castoff clothes to fashion-stores in order to receive vouchers to purchase new rags we should reduce our clothing consumption radically. Instead of applauding people’s economic ability to buy yet another updated version of a perfectly fine object we should praise the beauty of well-made, long-lasting, well-functioning artefacts and creative mends. And instead of craving and demanding an even flow of new, flashy products made of virgin materials we should request products that encourage sustainable living by being made of recycled materials, that are upcycled from discarded products, or are made to be swapped or shared or to sustainably deteriorate.

Metaphorically speaking, what we are doing right now is like insisting on building a tropical waterpark in a desert, even though this is obviously immensely straining on the natural resources available, and despite the fact that it goes against the physical qualities and local resources of a desert. We will not accept and respect natural limitations, and we generally refuse to be restricted by lack of resources and local reserves. Deserts are a particularly good metaphor in this case because they appear to be useless to human beings. But despite a desert’s seeming uselessness in relation to the livelihood of humans, deserts are vitally important to the earth’s ecosystem, just as the artic sea pack is and just as rainforests are.
Furthermore, if usefulness is a focal point, making use of desert land for harvesting solar energy or minerals rather than for constructions that are better fitted elsewhere should be the way forward. A good example of naturally sustainable usage of land is the rice fields in Bali that most typically are built on hills, ridges, or mountainsides that naturally have springs running through them or water running down from elevated lakes or streams—natural irrigation. This is a prime case of understanding and respecting a landscape or “listening to its soul” and its natural flow before farming it, creating constructions on it, or in other ways altering it to make it inhabitable or “useful” to human beings.

When it comes to sustainable design solutions and sustainable living, a similar perspective is needed. We need to make use of land that has natural springs running through them to farm rice—symbolically speaking. The direction we are headed right now is leading us to proprietary obesity: it seems that we continuously over consume and then feel weighed down by our belongings, which forces us go on a diet. We tidy up—we might even hire experts to help us do this—we throw a bunch of stuff away, we cherish minimal living for a while, only to find ourselves “overeating” soon again. All the alluring and very affordable offers are apparently just too tempting. The sudden bursts of minimalistic needs are apparently not sustainable, maintainable, or satisfying.

The current consensus appears to be that improvements and progress are the equivalent of making things more comfortable, smoother, and more convenient by minimizing friction and heaviness. However, design improvements could and should ideally mean something entirely different. Improvements should increase the tactile experience and foster a tangible bond between object and owner. They should challenge the user’s senses and mind and induce more heaviness, in the most nourishing sense of this term. They should encourage the user to repair and maintain an object or perhaps even to share it with others. Or they should activate the user and engage her or him in communal or sustainable actions.

Aesthetically sustainable Boro rug by MITSUGU SASAKI

Before designing yet another slightly better, slightly more convenient, slightly more streamlined, slightly easier to use version of a phone, a chair, a jacket, or a bowl for that matter, the sustainable designer should question the very inclination for this task, by asking the following question: What can legitimize designing something new? Are minor improvements or increased convenience a good enough reason?

Can you, literally and metaphorically speaking, legitimize replacing your entire kitchen because you want new cupboards that don’t make any noise when you close them, and because you cannot solely change the cupboards, since the other kitchen elements won’t mix and match? The new countertop has to have a skinnier, smoother surface than your old one. Can that in any way be an appropriate reason to improve one’s belongings in a world with scarce resources? Does today’s common consumer really need more convenience? And, is the transition to smart everything and focusing on accessibility and user-friendliness above all really necessary?

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