(UN)SUSTAINABILITY AS TREND AND NECESSARY CONDITION FOR DESIGN
Contribution of Klára Peloušková (CZ), reflecting on the design profession in the context of the climate crisis, was a part of the block of lectures organized by initiative "Nestrácajme čas" within the Bratislava Design Week 2019.
“All those words about sustainability, it’s just mere populism…”, “We’ll recycle next time, ok?”, “Doing things makes no sense? Well, then, shouldn’t we shut the school down right away?” I hear similar statements in a design-teaching environment quite often. And it would be right to say that the laments of those who are sometimes a bit vexed by the environmental accent in design are often justified. It is because sustainability in its dominant meaning is too often understood as yet another passing fad to wear off easily like an organic yogurt from a local farm. Being “eco” and hip is really annoying. Yet “eco” that we need is far from hip – and it cannot be anything else.
The problem lies in the concept of “sustainable development” itself. It was formulated in 1987 in the report titled Our Common Future as a summary of the outcomes of a four-year work of the UN Brundtland Commission. According to this report “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, the 2016 measurement showed that human society is now in a deep ecological deficit: global use of natural resources reaches the equivalent of 1.7 planets, going as high as 2.98 in the case of Europe. Therefore, the idea that we would not reduce our needs is, to say the least, naïve. The conclusions of the Brundtland Commission were challenged already in 1989, by e.g. ecologist David Orton. In his eyes, the report just conceals the contradiction between the expansive logic of industrial capitalism and finality of the Earth and its self-regulatory system.  The idea of sustainable development by no means disrupts the principle of infinite economic growth which could be maintained only under the assumption that the material demands of economy will not exceed the limits of the planetary ecosystem. However, the existing measurements do not indicate that continual economic growth in global conditions would be even possible without further growth of emissions and consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources. 
An absolute peak of the superficial appropriation of environmental rhetoric as well as deep misunderstanding of ecological issues is corporate greenwashing in the vein of the spectacular Hopenhagen advertising campaign that painfully underscored the total political failure of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009. The campaign, ordered directly by the UN, was made by the International Advertising Association (IAA) and presented itself as the “people’s” movement where citizens, governments and corporations were all pulling together to stop climate change. Coca-Cola, Siemens or BMW took advantage of the creativity and determination of the socially engaged public in favour of their self-promotion without putting any thought to the fact it is their activities that come under heavy criticism of these initiatives. This very media spectacle eventually became the subject of protests involving some summit delegates as well.  Design played an overly significant role in the campaign; naturally, marketing tools made by advertising agencies are a fruit of designers despite not being referenced by IAA anywhere on their website. Nevertheless, only when we admit that PR communication does belong to this area, we will be able to perceive design in its entirety, with all its incongruencies – it simply cannot escape any political or economic interests however hard it tries to pretend it is possible.
Paradoxes of Multinational Corporations
It would be needless to analyze toothless and practically counterproductive trading strategies focused on social responsibility such as all kinds of “sustainable” lines of fashion chains. Yet some enterprises are surely serious about their efforts to reduce ecological burden and they just cannot be dismissed as a mere PR strategy. For example, the goals of IKEA are relatively ambitious – among other things they are committed to become “the company built on the model of circular economy that uses clean, renewable energy and regenerative resources decoupling their material use from their growth.”  The company thus addresses the goals of sustainable development as formulated by the UN and is committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, extend life of their products, and promote environmentally friendly households as well as equality and inclusion in relation to their employees.
The IKEA’s intentions seem to be extraordinarily “woke”, and we should expect no less from the biggest furniture retailer in the world – implementing principles of circular economy is essential, just like the reduction of CO2 emissions. Yet it is not so simple, even in the case of IKEA. It is true that the company gradually increases its efficiency, yet when it comes to energy intensity and greenhouse emissions, their carbon footprint in absolute terms continues to grow (by 2.8 % between 2016 and 2018); the reason is continuous growth.  The company representatives claim it takes time. IKEA envisage to expand and grow and one may say that there is nothing else to do in the context of the growing economy system, as “stagnation” would render them untrustworthy in the eyes of investors and creditors. Purely theoretically, the company by itself could eventually work out how to separate growth from the ecological effects of their business. However, if it happens at all, it will only be at the cost of huge investments into building new and, needless to say, highly energy-intensive infrastructure. Is it really wise to exert such means to ensure indefinite growth of a company? And even if so, “sustainable” performance of one business within a “non-sustainable” system is of little value anyway.
The expansive logic of such a business model also bears the traits of modern (cultural) colonialism, imperialism and messianic rhetoric. IKEA loudly proclaim that the products they offer are based around the idea of “democratic design”: they aim for high-quality (aesthetically pleasing, functional, sustainable and moderately priced) products for everyone. As if the expansion of network of stores and intensification of production were redeemed by good intentions once and for all. Although the company, in some respect, indeed succeeded in making what was previously exclusive design into something generally affordable, we have to keep asking what is actually democratic about business practice that imposes, so to speak, a uniform aesthetic, standards of “good” living and, finally, a specific culture and life-style onto everyone indiscriminately. And individual preferences and freedom of choice are clearly not at stake here. What is, however, is mainly social togetherness and related issues such as for whom we work, how we produce and consume things and, of course, also the way we extract and process natural materials. The fact that we mostly have a faint idea about where something comes from and if there is enough of it, is a pithy illustration of a disjointed neoliberal logic heralding that economic system and its needs are above ecological and social system.
One could say with a bit of exaggeration that capitalism is an example of a fairly short-sighted and in many respects fatally non-functioning “human-centered design” we have tackled previously. It seems as if the world we live in were here primarily for humans to act and enjoy benefits from it. However, not seeing around corners, we fail to realise that we do not act in the vacuum and that only some get to enjoy the benefits. Besides, the concept of sustainable development is strongly human-centered as well, which confirms it has practically merged with the status quo. In this context, David Orton cited a very terse passage from the Brundtland Commission conclusions: “Our message is directed towards people, whose well-being is the ultimate goal of all environment and development policies.”  And that is something IKEA would definitely subscribe to.
Creating Values Involving Time
Economist Tim Jackson writes that in order for our economic system to work, it is necessary to fundamentally modify its main investment- and debt-driven mechanisms, and reset our understanding of value. According to Jackson, we should stop clinging to fast returns and ever-increasing labour productivity and start appreciating the value that is created by time. We will need to invest in the activities that take time (such as care, crafts and art), if we want to shift to a different economy model – one that will allow for meaningful work with a small carbon footprint. This means a required shift from commodity materialism and a new accent on “services” provided to us by things: after all, more than food or furniture we care about nutrition and housing, i.e. the quality of (often shared) experience.  Multinational corporations can never offer something like that, although they like to claim the opposite. A product as a service (or “a story”) is surely nothing that marketing departments and advertising agencies would not commonly use, just like the economy of services very well familiar to postindustrial societies of the global North that rely on transferring dirty industry somewhere far away, out of sight. Despite that it is probably the only way how to reflect on “sustainable” design of tangible things – in order for it to be really sustainable, it must transcend itself, take notice of the relationships it creates among people and the environment they live in. It is not a dematerialised or illusory service, but a service perceived, experienced and inherently intertwined into the matter of objects and social structures.
Today there is an endless number of projects based on local production, material and energy efficiency and respect towards work and social context. The frequent designers’ propensity for manual production and reviving traditional craft techniques can only be seen as positive. More and more often I meet people who think about their own products holistically, with all their consequences. They are interested in who, where and how the materials they use are processed, in what conditions their products are made, in their longevity and the way of their disposal. It seems natural, but, in reality, it is often very hard to map the entire process, weighing all the pros and cons: even ecological organisations do not possess the necessary data to advise a person if it is less environmentally harmful to use natural or synthetic leather, certified cotton wool or non-certified bamboo. As it is time- and financially demanding to take informed decisions in questions of consumption for individuals, so it is rather frustrating for designers when they themselves are not able to judge the environmental impact of their products with certainty. Both designers and users are alone in this respect. They have to put forth a big effort to produce and consume “in the right way”, not being overwhelmed by paralysis or apathy caused by excessive levels of uncertainty. This is also one of the expressions of pressure on individual performance typical for our today’s society.
Another, so to say, inevitable risk of small design projects with the very best intentions is their containment by the totalising market logic, especially when successful. Success must grow – and prosperity in capitalism is expressed in numbers. The Czechdesign website has recently published an article with a symptomatic title Green Innovations. Five Czech Eco-Inventors that Move the World. One of the mentioned “green” products is Frusack, a compostable bag for fruit and vegetables, made of corn cellulose. Author of the article Iveta Křížová links the success of the company mostly with its ability to extend their business: “The smart bag has gradually expanded from the local market (including Slovakia) to the shops in Norway and Spain. Frusacks also started to be sold on Amazon, e.g. in UK.” But is it really necessary for the project of such a sort to “expand” into the whole world? Its design packaging made in the sheltered workshop in Stará Paka, its logo and web presentation gives an impression of “fresh“, start-up innovativeness and uniqueness. I have no doubts that Frusack is a great product, but to make an object of desire from a food bag, labelling it with all those onerous imperatives of responsible individual consumption and selling it on Amazon is a bit against the original sense of the product, which is to reduce the eco-burden of packaging materials. Would it not make sense for the things that do not require any specific craft skill to be produced locally and only in the quantity really necessary? Clinging on to the uniqueness of a material or fierce protection of specific know-how in similar cases is counterproductive from the ecological point of view. “Green” innovations that (out of necessity?) follow the standard business model thus reinforce the impression of relevance and self-preservation of the prevailing economic system.
So it seems that design is trapped. As if all the “sustainable” strategies face-to-face neoliberal capitalism should inevitably fail. The painful feeling of helplessness or on the contrary, pragmatically resigned attitude are no exception among designers. Nevertheless, the more committed ones – together with many theoreticians and experts from other fields – continue to look for ways to “reroute” design practices towards sustainability, while taking into consideration the ecological context of design that has been in circulation for many decades. We will need high-quality, consistently thought-out and designed products in the sustainable future too, but we should definitely not need them in such quantities. That is why theoreticians of design strive to find other applications of design, pointing out that it has long been applied where we would not even look for it. It is, however, sure we will have to approach design in a more complex way than before and it will not be possible to rely only on individual capabilities of particular designers. Either way, we will not make do with “sustainability” as an optional category that we can, but do not have to mix into our marketing cocktail of a new product. Sustainability simply cannot be left “for another day”, although alternative models of design practice are often problematic and contradictory. One way or another, it is worth discussing them – and we will touch upon it next time.