Sustainability has become a delicious buzzword in business. Not only does it make Millenials more likely to buy from you (supposedly). It is also the classic self righteous win win of business. If you make a huge amount of money from a 'sustainable business' you are still guaranteed to be a bonafide saint.
As a concept- sustainability has blown up since my first dabble in it; studying jewellery design at Central Saint Martins. Que- Medium boring humble (?) brag about how early I was to this party; In final year at college, Laura Strand and I convinced everyone on our course to make one piece of our final collections in recycled silver. It was 2008- It was a ball ache (we had to convince Blundells to actually make us up a batch of 100 per cent recycled silver because no one was selling it yet) I honestly thought it would be a headline coup. But, I guess we were ahead of the curve...
All that time and effort, (convincing our fellow students, getting the silver smelted, everyone had issues using the recycled silver because it was a quick fix product, fronting the cash on an order of ethical gemstones, finding a sponsor (CRED jewellery) for a mini catalogue, photography of 30 pieces, touching up photography of 30 pieces, graphics layout of catalogue etc) went out into a massive 'ssshhh, this seems like an overreaction' void. I'M NOT BITTER!
Since then the space has exploded, and the Guardian do care, thank goodness. But, consumption as a whole has also exploded, to levels that pretty much eclipse 'trends' for making and marketing 'sustainable' fashion.
The ground is shifting beneath us, even as we start to find our feet. The issue of sustainability is quickly becoming irrelevant, just as it's coming into the public consciousness. (Although I'm not sure I've ever got out of my bubble long enough to REALLY know if it is denting the public consciousness or not.)
The science seems to be suggesting that ecological degradation and exploitation will trigger a series of 'tipping points' that might make it impossible to undo the damage we've done. We're already dangerously close to those tipping points -just 'sustaining' the planet in its current state is still essentially a path to climate disaster. The challenge now for designers/ people-that-provide-goods, is regeneration.
Regeneration comes from the principle that the earth has the potential to reestablish balanced life sustaining systems, within its own material makeup I.e. the earth already has the ability to sequester carbon within soil, mangroves forests etc.
The bizarre situation that humans have created, is that we literally block the natural systems of our planet, from being able to sustain us. We're in a constant trade off of short term individual benefit, against long term survival. A new pair of jeans keeps your legs warm for the next 6 months, (til it gets that rip across the underbum) but denim production toxifies another water supply in india so that people living there don't have clean water ever again (unless they change path and allow the river to return to health).
These issues are often so far away. But, it doesn't help us to think of the Earth as separate countries or regions. It's a single unit, like a body in itself. It needs all of it's complex systems to be functioning for it to be healthy.
Sustainable design can no longer be a segmented practise of reacting to one symptom of western consumption. It needs joined up and holistic thinking to draw together strands and communities and people into a singular goal of returning the earth- our home, to health.
Of course it's an enormous task, and as my little story of student optimism illustrates- I understand all the hard work people in this space are doing, without genuine recognition. I understand how difficult it is to get across the important stories, the struggles, the disappointments. Which is why we need more people than ever to take part in it.
The first step is to ask the right questions;
Rather than- 'How can I produce my product sustainably?'
Ask- 'Does my product contribute to bringing the Earth back to health?'
It doesn't matter if it only helps a bit. It doesn't have to be the fix-all solution. In fact that 'saviour' complex is a hindrance (western/colonial ish) to the real micro solutions, the knowledge sharing and the collaboration, the long term thinking, the small but radical/deep/embedded changes that have the possibility to alter our course.
This u-turn in thinking; From a mindset of 'I'm the centre and I just have to fix this little problem of sustainability' to a mindset of- 'The Earth, my sustainer is the centre, and I need to create something that is in sync with it's beautiful systems', is the point at which we stop digging this hole, and start climbing out.