Is Sustainable Design Obsolete When Human Behaviour is Not Willing to Adapt?



Is Sustainable Design Obsolete When Human Behaviour is Not Willing to Adapt?

— Kat challenges the current crossroad of old design strategies embedded in traditional thinking, and the opportunity in building a new wave of sustainable design.


Katherine Guerrero.png

Kat Guerrero
Noéma contributor


Humans are nothing more than (highly-refined) animals. We walk around in circles, gravitate towards specific spaces, feed ourselves, move as packs and engage in similar habits throughout our life. Of course, there is diversification in human activities and choices based on our background, environment and experience, but in the big picture we are creatures of habit that are easily swayed by our environment. That environment encompasses the people we surround ourselves with, the products we invite into our life and the physical spaces in which we spend our time.

Sustainable design, by definition, is the philosophy of designing physical objects, a built environment and services that consider the principles of ecological sustainability. Through the integration of form, function and usability, sustainable design accomplishes a harmony with natural systems through a holistic approach to solve larger problems that supersede the use of the space, product or experience itself.

Visual by  @thestaplestore

Visual by @thestaplestore


Sustainable design shares common principles between the design disciplines, including:

·      The use of environmentally friendly and renewable materials

·      Conscious manufacturing practices and energy efficiency

·      Understanding the end of life of a product

·      The design of a product for reuse and recycling

A quick history lesson before we dive into the current state of sustainable design: sustainability at its core is embedded in the past. Before the industrial revolution, consumerist modern era and an obsession with upward mobility, most cultures lived with nature – abiding by her ebbs and flows. With the rise of the global economy and the agricultural and industrial revolution, something shifted. Rather than working with nature, we began to work against it, encouraging the earth to provide for us fully, instead of existing besides us. That ‘them v. us’ mentality led to a mindset of economic growth through resource extraction with the end goal of providing a modernised lifestyle, with minimal thought to the long-term effects on the environment.

In the late 90’s, companies started to take notice and action of their environmental effect, primarily in the production processes. The official concept of sustainable design was put into writing by the United Nations Environmental Program in the late 90’s, through a manual that outlined eco-design concepts and the social aspects of production.

Image via  @wemakeitlast

Image via @wemakeitlast


Here’s where we are now – at a crossroads of old design strategies, embedded in traditional thinking, building and a new wave of sustainable design that holds promise to change the way humans interact with their environment through the day to day.

In theory, sustainable design seems like the ideal way to shift a consumer towards an environmentally-friendly mindset. But there seems to be a disconnect between sustainable design and its integration because as a society, we are unable to fully adapt. In addition, while there should be an obligation to ensure that all production, regardless of the industry, is sustainable, producers prefer faster, cheaper and more realistic solutions.

Economic diversity and geography is another blockage to successful sustainable design. Sustainable design, regardless of the medium, seems to favour areas of higher economic success and urban density because sustainability has yet to go mainstream.

Why would a designer target the outskirts of a demographic if they aren’t sure if their design mechanism will be successful in the long run?

Often, there are complex and complicated design standards, particularly in sustainable architecture. To achieve certain certifications, like LEED or green star, developers and contractors must jump through often expensive and tedious hoops.

Visual via  @wemakeitlast

Visual via @wemakeitlast


The logistics of designing sustainably is just one side of the coin. Even if a product, experience or space is sustainably designed, the next piece is to invite consumers to engage with that design.

Some design, like sustainable architecture, is alluring to consumers looking to minimise their impact in a way that is mindless. If all the work has been done for them, they feel like they are doing good. Sustainably-designed products, like the recent Adidas x Parley for the Ocean trainers, integrate sustainability with a well-known brand, encouraging a new demographic to think about their impact while possessing a desirable item.

Another side to the discussion is the current culture of consumption. There is already so much designed that can be improved rather than replaced. Is it the best approach for designers to start from scratch or to slowly integrate sustainable design principles in what’s already in place?

Our answer to the posed question is this: sustainable design could work if it is the most economical, effective and aesthetically pleasing product on the market. People don’t want to work hard to be environmental advocates if they don’t see immediate or short-term return. Incorporating sustainable design in an approachable way seems ideal, but there is a significant disconnect in what we do and what we want to do.


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What are your thoughts? Is sustainable design susceptible to way humans behave?

Should companies still prioritise sustainable design despite consumer behaviour?

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