Sometimes the S-word feels like a challenge just too vast for designers to take on. If clients are putting ‘sustainability’ into the brief, it is often simply an attempt to be seen to be Green. Even the word ‘sustainable’ is much disputed and often confused with ‘environmentally friendly’. Consider the Toyota Prius. It’s brilliantly designed to reduce its environmental impact, but buying it will not save the planet. The real issue is how we get from place to place. Another example is an ‘organic’ cotton garment versus a less ‘sustainable’ polyester equivalent. The first might look better but it won’t be if it’s made on the other side of the world by an under-age, under-paid worker in a sweatshop.

And herein lies the problem. Sustainability is not only about materials and processes, but also about social issues. Looking at materials and processes alone fails to address the connection between society and the environment. Nor does it enable designers to consider the wider impacts of their work.

Even if sustainability does creep into the brief, the issues are so broad – how can you, as a designer, begin to address them? Tackling environmental sustainability seems to require extensive knowledge and information about life-cycle analysis, materials and processes, in which most designers are barely versed. Each problem seems so complex and has so many variables that no single professional will feel he or she has all the know-how to begin to solve it.

The design system itself needs to undergo a profound change. For starters, all designers need to be trained in basic principles of environmental and social sustainability. Then, universities need to get students accustomed to collaborating across disciplines in symbiosis with each other’s knowledge. Design London – created by the Royal College of Art, Imperial College London and Tanaka Business School – is a step in the right direction.

Above all, designers need to recognise that there are pots of gold to be uncovered in addressing a whole new range of interesting innovation challenges that would put their design skills to new and beneficial use. If designers were more entrepreneurial about their practice, more versed in matters of business and enterprise, they might well be better equipped to find new professional opportunities in social and environmental challenges, and find profit in solving them.

Clare Brass is former sustainability project leader at the Design Council. With Flora Bowden she has set up the Social Environmental Enterprise and Design Foundation , to promote sustainability in design

Latest articles