Integrating Market Sustainability from the Product-Up

Defining market sustainability begins by asking whether our modern consumption culture, defined by mass- produced goods made of cheap materials and competitive advertising, fulfills our innate purpose. To accurately answer this, we will have to return to the basic needs that drive our consumption and reassess our wants in accordance. Doing so will define the difference between green and sustainable consumption — where green consumption centers on materials and perhaps longevity, sustainable consumption centers on creating products that are meaningful and fulfilling to us.

The qualities of goods we seek indirectly represent to us sensations that we find positive: fragrance, softness, smoothness, and sweetness all indicate pleasure and comfort; pleasure and comfort feed back into hope and growth, part of our innate set of desires. They also tap into what drives our desire: we want because we seek to nourish the mind and body, and to grow. So when we pick up goods, what is it that draws us to them? Being aware of this is the first step to real sustainability, and it bestows on us the imperative to demand products that dignify our humanity.

Designers and corporations are completely able to act according to this reality, because there is nothing we as humans belong to more — so why should the design process be led by anything but people? Leading the design process with either financial or even ecological considerations immediately sets the process up for failure — the process should be initiated with questions of aestheticism and purpose; doing so can allow the design process to encompass whole arguments and present them in forms which clarify complexity and ambiguity. Design at this point should address legitimate global issues, rather than elitist whims or pleasures.

The point of designing sustainable products is to better understand others — our products will seek to shape us just as much as we shape them, so the philosophies of the design process will become as equally pervasive as the public’s habits. There needs to be consensus that the new economy will be centered on people and the humanities, rather than on corporate success and new technologies. Technology is still vital, though for greater efficiency rather than expansive development. New modes of business practice will have to be integrated to achieve a harmonization between technology and sustainability — modes that contest industrial practices and instead embrace a meaningful material culture.

We then need to create an agenda of the issues we believe to be important and the extent to which we plan to resolve them; we call this the sustainability agenda. The first set of goals should revolve around a post-carbon era environment. Improving ecosystem health will require the intensive purification of various landscapes; innovative uses for carbon-era waste, such as decontamination for clean water, are also needed. This will allow us to fulfill our basic needs of climate stability and energy provision; it will also allow us to reestablish a connection with nature. And with rising population levels, it may even be necessary to enhance our ecosystems to beyond their preindustrial standards to allow for regenerative services.

Economically, absolute decoupling will need to be initiated as long as we have no alternative to the growth model. If we were to garner the momentum to completely redesign the economic system, we would be able to strive for eco-conscious development based on stakeholder needs rather than corporate growth; known as “steady-state economics,” this supports the development of an everyday lifestyle less dependent on the industrial work-and-spend cycle and more invested in sustainable forms of consumption, reflection, and well-being.

Furthermore, our communities could become self-sufficient in cooperative governance and provision, and competitive urbanization would be reduced in exchange for ecological stability and human integration into the natural system. This stands to be a vast cultural project that extends well beyond traditional ideas of sustainability; therefore, we may need to accept the eventuality of either a large-scale revolution or a slow process of many decades when discussing real sustainability in social, political, and economic models.

Whether the paradigm shift comes in the form of a revolution or gradual adjustment depends on our foresight and ability to act preventatively;
while slow adaptation is preferred and allows a transformative process of societal acceptance to occur, it also requires hypothesizing, reimagining, and behavioral change to begin early on. A revolution, alternatively, can take advantage of nonhierarchical grassroots movements to reframe global issues from the perspective of young activists; activism in this context can range from political transformation to everyday behavioral change, and is largely defined by the extent to which one accepts the ability to incite social change.

In either case, however, it has to be acknowledged that evolution is possible and will likely take centuries. Just as those alive in 1600 never would have conceived of the contemporary world as it stands today, though we are currently unable to imagine a sustainable society, it still remains completely possible.

Designer and writer integrating multimedia design with systemic change