An antidote to sustainable luxury

Living sustainably should be the most reasonable and the most natural way of life. Mending, reusing, recycling, sharing, and eating local groceries are all examples of activities that are at the core of sustainable living, and that are also affordable, unpretentious, and accessible. So why is sustainability often associated with luxury, elitisms, and exclusivity? Why has sustainable design and sustainable living become a status symbols and ways of expressing wealth and sophistication?

Looking back in history at traditional ways of life, basic approaches to sustainable living are countless: prolonging the life of things, repairing, reinforcing, preserving, conserving, communally consuming, sharing, crafting, gardening, locally sourcing, composting, following the cycles of nature and seasons, etc. Such activities and ways of life are exactly what are celebrated as a part of the simple living tendency, which means that there is a growing tendency of engaging in and celebrating democratic, communal, unpretentious sustainability.

However, despite repairing, reusing, and recycling being both affordable and accessible ways of life and approaches to consumption, they don’t seem to be common. As a matter of fact, the least well-off seem to be the least engaged in such sustainable and affordable activities. Why? Well, in order to be able to repair and mend one’s belongings, these belongings must be repairable! And, generally cheap, mass-produced goods aren’t. They are produced to be obsolete after a short period of usage. Fast-fashion products are generally made from composite and/or artificial materials that cannot be patched or mended in a way that doesn’t leave unflattering spots on the fabric surface, and they, per definition, adhere to fleeting trends, which make them appear outmoded after a short period of time.

Similarly, cheap toys, home accessories, kitchen utensils, etc., wear out and get damaged in ways that make them hard or maybe even impossible to mend. They are made from flimsy materials that break easily, and they are cheaper to replace than to repair. Aligned herewith, the cheapest foods are mass-produced fast foods, and are typically wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam, produced to be homogeneous and bland in large food factories and often transported across the world. They are obviously not the most sustainable products, without even getting into the health hazards that they represent, the animal cruelty to produce, or the unethical, oppressive work conditions that are involved in the production.

Sustainable design-objects and ecological, sustainable foods are created and produced to be expensive. They are made and branded to be yet another traditional status symbol, yet another way to express wealth. Even though living sustainably should and could be the most reasonable and natural way of life, it is out of reach for the majority of people. Sustainability has become pretentious, elitist, and for those who are fortunate, well-off, and well-informed, and those who tend to increase the division between sustainable and unsustainable living by sitting “on their high horses” pointing fingers. Sustainability has become a way to separate social classes. It is an extremely effective example of storytelling that profits from self-righteousness and class-divisions, creating an us versus them mentality. There is no community feeling in luxurious sustainability.

But do sustainable things really have to be expensive and pretentious? Of course, designing durable, long-lasting objects tends to require thoroughness and time-consuming research; and of course the creators of sustainable solutions have to be paid for their efforts, and the manufacturers and workers should receive fair salaries.

However, designing for a long life might not be the only way to create a sustainable thing. The sustainable short-lived object represents a different approach to sustainable design by celebrating change, transience, and impermanence. Designing short-lived sustainable objects produced to deteriorate naturally can be a sustainable kind of planned obsolescence.

There is a plethora of inspirational examples of sustainable living in the past that are affordable and straight forward. The raw and open design-object is created to encourage such ways of sustainable living. It is repairable, flexible, and embraces the user’s needs and preferences—and in that sense it is upgradable. The raw and open design-object is unpretentious and modest in the sense that it isn’t—at its starting point—flashy; it might not even look like much, because it represents a nearly blank canvas to be filled by the user. It is the user who makes it unique and shapes its aesthetics—its look, feel, ambience—simply by using it, perhaps by decorating it, by allowing for the traces of usage to manifest on it, and by maintaining and mending it. The open and raw design-object falls into the category of long-lived design-objects, but its durability is not initially linked to loud aesthetics or challenging compositions. It typically has a very simple, neutral appearance, because its initial look and ambiance should allow for the user to put their mark on it and affect its look. The raw design-object might develop from having a neutral, modest, and simple expression to being loud, flamboyant, and colourful depending on the user’s preferences and stories.

The open and raw design-object should have a broad appeal. Designing with openness and inclusiveness in mind is a way of aiming for broad applicability and relevance, which means that as many people as possible, regardless of cultural background and capital or habits, feel intrigued by the object. Opening up the design-object is a way of “loosening it up” by generalising and allowing whoever purchases it and uses it to shape and influence it.

The narrative of the open, raw design object is created through usage, and thereby it isn’t pre-made in the shape of delicious, seductive sustainable storytelling. It arises from the post-creation phase. It contains a great deal of time; the time spent molding, wearing, changing, or mending inherent changes that unfold.

The open, raw design-object is charged with the time of usage, and as such it is ever-changing.


Read much more about openness, rawness, and democratic, short-lived sustainability in my new book Anti-trend – in particular in Chapter 5 of the book: Three Anti-trendy Reasons for Designing New Objects in a World With Way too Many Things

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