Democratic sustainability

Around a year ago I spoke at a design conference. I spoke about aesthetic sustainability and the importance of investing in durable things: things that last, both functionally and aesthetically. And, I spoke about how decay at times can beautify an object; how wear and weathering can increase the value of a well-made piece of furniture or clothing.

There was a question from the crowd: “What if you cannot afford to invest in a well-crafted table that ages with beauty?”

It was a good and relevant question. Because despite the fact that investing in durable things that can last for decades and continuously nourish us aesthetically is probably the most affordable and reasonable in the long run, this is not an option for everyone.

Sustainability has become the new luxury.

Creating durable design objects is time consuming, and of course the pricetag should reflect that. However, this means that investing in durability is not a possibility for everyone, and that sustainable consumption tends to increase societal inequality.

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

Looking back in history, 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.

However, despite repairing, reusing and recycling being both affordable and accessible ways of life, they don’t seem to be vastly common. As a matter of fact, the least well-off seem to be the least engaged in such sustainable (and affordable) activities.


Well, in order to be able to repair one’s belongings, these belongings must be repairable. And generally cheap mass-produced goods are not. They are produced to be obsolete after a short period of usage. Fast-fashion products for example are typically 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 furthermore 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 such are typically wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam, produced in manifolds in large food factories and often transported across the world, and as such they are obviously not the most sustainable products. 

Sustainable design-objects as well as ecological, sustainable foods on the other hand are created and produced to be expensive; they are made and branded to be yet another traditional status-symbol, or yet another way to express wealth. And so, even though living sustainably should and could be the most reasonable and natural way of life, it is out of reach for the vast majority of people. Hence sustainability has become pretentious, elitist, and for the fortunate well-off and well-informed few (who tend to increase the division further between sustainable and unsustainable living by sitting “on their high horses” pointing fingers and says: “oh my, I cannot believe they don’t know any better than to act, shop, eat, drive, travel like that”).

Sustainability has become a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is an extremely effective example of storytelling that profits from righteousness and class-divisions (and hence creates an “us” and a “them”). There is no community-feeling in luxurious sustainability. 

Designing cheap products meant for short-term usage out of materials that last for a very, very long time, maybe even for hundreds of years, and that whilst breaking down slowly emit polluting gasses is actually kind of bizarre. Despite this being common practice, it is a flaw.

How can designing e.g. flip flops out of imperishable foam rubber have become custom? And, why is creating trend-based stuffs that are intentionally made to be fleeting out of resource-demanding natural materials like cotton or hardwood, or out of synthetic materials that cannot deteriorate naturally, like polyester, nylon, rayon or polyethylene, considered business as usual? If you think about this in a logical manner, designing something for short-term usage out of materials that can last for (more or less) ever is erroneous and should be considered a design error.

Unless sustainable solutions are made accessible to the vast majority, unless sustainability is inclusive rather than exclusive, unless sustainable living is the norm rather than a branded lifestyle for the privileged few, well then the ability to embrace a sustainable lifestyle will remain yet another way of increasing the inequality gap between populaces.

Overcoming that gap requires affordability, accessibility and repairability; sustainable design solutions should ideally be created to be egalitarian rather than elitist. Of course, slowly crafted objects are more expensive than mass-produced goods (and rightfully so), and of course innovative design solutions created with the purpose of encouraging sustainable living often require massive material and technological research and development, which initially makes the outcome costlier than conventional products. But creating affordable, enduring, repairable things is not impossible. Not at all. 

However, democratising sustainability doesn’t only involve simplifying and optimising sustainable solutions in order to make them more affordable (even though this process is a part hereof). It also requires a change in habitual mass-consumption. 

As long as mindless consumption is still the general norm, as long as discarding things when they are slightly worn out or broken is still the most common (and the cheapest) procedure, and as long as shopping is viewed as a reward for long work-hours, creating sustainable design solutions that encourage reduced consumption, challenges use-and-throw-away-habits, and favours repairs is a task that is not solely linked to affordability.

Democratising sustainability requires a mix of accessible, affordable, durable and repairable things and a mass-consumer culture that favours longevity and creative mends.

All photos are from my newly started democratic (meaning affordable, ethically produced) sustainable luxury brand illusi. Follow along on instagram: we are launching products and workshops soon.

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