Rethinking Sustainability

One subject that has been a focus of interest in my recent studies is sustainability. It is “on trend”, everybody speaks about it, but we should really stop and think about what the concept means to us.

We must start thinking about sustainable development in a deeper and broader way.

Many believe this deals only with energy efficiency, carbon emissions and eco materials, but in most cases it goes beyond that. Generally the bigger problem is with use.

There is a strong focus in ecomaterials, but in order to say a material is ecological we must analyze systems, because in the end, everything comes from nature.

“It is how you use the material that dictates the environmental impact.”
— Acaroglu, L. (2013)


In this realm I wanted to share a wonderful TED Talk by sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu, where she invites us to change our "environmental folklore", those preconceived ideas we have around sustainability that are not true, but are the concepts we apply when we try to do "the right thing".



What we need is a holistic, system’s view of sustainability, since the work we develop on each one of the systems affects the rest — everything is connected. Hence the importance of life cycle analysis, considering the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, use and in this process, the product's environmental impact on every scale.


Complex systems involved in development. Acaroglu, L. (2013)

Complex systems involved in development. Acaroglu, L. (2013)


Beyond learning to analyze life cycles, what the design industry needs is a change of mindset: one that sees from a wide perspective and prepares to detect system failure. 

It is not just to make us better at making things worse, the idea is to redesign the system.

We must identify the real problems and use them as the base to solve design concepts.
This will impulse behavior change in products, environment and people, tackling the issues globally with a design-lead system change.  

Take the examples of the talk, the problems were not about technology or materials (the common concerns around sustainability). Instead I can identify concerns around shape, function and durability:

  1. Growing refrigerators = more food waste. (SHAPE)
Food waste in the United States. Acaroglu, L. (2013)

Food waste in the United States. Acaroglu, L. (2013)

The impact of this is crazy, 40% of fresh food is wasted from homes in the United States, an approximate of 1.3 billion tons of food. Of course it is not just about the shape of the fridge, we can't oversimplify the problem, but it does have a strong repercussion in the performance —  we must understand that sometimes we don't need advanced sustainable technology, what we need is to reconsider aspects as fundamental as the size of products.  


    2. The Electric tea kettle (FUNCTION)

Sustainability issues: the electric tea kettle. Acaroglu, L. (2013)

Sustainability issues: the electric tea kettle. Acaroglu, L. (2013)

We all know british are a strong fans of tea, it is a population where about 97% of the people own an electric kettle in their home. 

The problem? People over fill their kettles because it is designed for heating 2 - 5 cups of water, when they just needed one. Extra water requires extra energy, and in this case it is equivalent to lighting all of the street lights for a night. 

This is why we have to consider the global impact of all the people that will use the product — a small waste is a huge waste altogether.   

From this example I realized two important aspects to bear in mind:  

  • Optimize the servings for different customer needs (options from minimum to maximum).
  • Reconsider how we design things to diminish waste in the usage.

This also applies to the crisper drawer example: a drawer that does not actually get things crisp, and as a result, a ton of lettuces end up in the trash.  There is so much design can do when we consider the macro aspects of design features.

As Acaroglu affirms, functionality determines environmental impact. It is all about application.


    3. Cell phone production (DURABILITY)

With a world population of 7 billion persons, there is a production of 1.5 billion cellphones every year. It is insane, to a point it is considered a bigger rate of production than birth rate. 

What are we going to do with all of these cell phones getting discarded every few years? Only 11%  of them are being recycled.

The problem is very complex, but I think one of the basic issues in design is planned obsolescence. The industrialization process has impulsed our development immensely, but a production of this level within a market that promotes a throw-away habit is killing us.  

We need to make durability sexy again and design objects with the idea of being reused. 

As Dieter Rams states:

We need to deal with our resources differently, in terms of how we waste things. We have to move away from the throwaway habit. Things can, and must, last longer.
— Dieter Rams (2015)

We must think of every object next to its larger concept, and most importantly, we must realize that everything we design ends up somewhere.

We have to think about the ramifications of the choices we make.

As designers, we need to be conscious about this and take it as a responsibility. It is not just about using green materials or getting a LEED certificate. It is not optional, or a bonus feature, we should care.