Let’s entrench sustainability ethos in the design industry

Every so often design adopts a new buzzword or phrase, often borrowed from the client side. Not long ago any consultancy worth its salt introduced the words ‘strategic consultant’ to its company descriptor in a bid, we can only surmise, to score higher fees by playing management consultants at their own game. The move was almost a repeat of the ‘added bran’ claims on the packs of the cereal producers of the health-conscious late 1980s.

Then came ‘branding’, that catch-all phrase encompassing anything from packaging to identity that remains with us today. Can you think of a consultancy operating in either of these fields, in print, on-line design or whatever that doesn’t claim expertise in brands? It has even been applied to product design when you consider comments made in the late 1990s about Apple Computer’s outstanding range, Dyson’s iconic vacuum cleaners and the then new Volkswagen Beetle.

Now we are juggling with the term ‘sustainability’ – a much more complex concept, it would appear, as hardly anyone has adopted it as a means of marketing their work or services. It hasn’t even made it on to the press releases of the most aggressive consultancies, schooled in the art of self-promotion, yet it is the one term that is likely to stick and, through a combination of legislation and public awareness, contribute to the shape of design in the future.

It has been coming for years. Amid the ‘added bran’ claims some 15 years ago there was a real concern in certain quarters about the need to recycle materials where possible and more recently manufacturers, particularly of white goods, have given some thought to creating parts that are easily replaced to revive a machine that might otherwise be junked. It makes commercial as well as ethical sense.

The events of 11 September 2001 prompted a universal sense of caring and reassessing values that hasn’t gone away, the subsequent war notwithstanding. But while ‘social responsibility’ has become a common theme among big businesses – and therefore within design – no one has really put their finger on exactly what sustainability means and what role design as a whole can play in it. Yet it is an area where, experts maintain, designers can take a leadership stance.

To fuel the debate – and hopefully inspire action – next week we are kicking off a series of regular articles by leading lights in various fields to explain what sustainability means to them and where it has got to in their sector. Meanwhile, we welcome contributions to our Letters page about what could be one of the hottest topics of 2004 – one that, armed with knowledge and given the right drive, design could make its own.

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