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Can sustainability be part of our unsustainable society?

Or will it become unsustainable?

Identity through consuming

Current day society is focused on consumption. People tend to buy everything they like, in amounts they don’t actually need. We might not actually need it, but still, we want it? Consuming has become part of our identity and it is done to create one. The way we look is based on who we want to be and how we identify ourselves. We show this in our garments, interior, accessories, and so much more. Buying new (unique) items is part of what we do and how we make ourselves who we are. The new trends in retail get assessed and consumed if we like it. And since trends change multiple times a year, this materialistic habit causes a lot of unnecessary shopping and unnecessary waste. But we also shouldn’t forget that shopping is also a nice activity to do, may COVID-19 permit us. Although during Black Friday we tend to do it in masses. Planning a shopping trip with friends and family, next to having a shopping day included on a city trip. Shopping and consuming is almost always part of what we do, wherever we are. Interesting, right?

Sustainability as an identity

Next to consuming being a thing we do, sustainability slowly becomes part of people’s being. We see the issues in the world and want to add something positive from our side. Like buying a t-shirt to raise money for burnt down rainforests. The main thing we know is that we should reduce our CO2 emission. People stop eating meat, go on a plastic packaging diet, grow their own greens, go by bike or public transport, and separate their waste as much as possible. Interestingly, people see ‘being sustainable’ as part of their identity. But what does that actually mean? What are the reasons to do so? And how do you actually do it?

People also exchange their regular H&M shopping sessions for shopping the H&M- Conscious clothing line instead (with the same amounts of clothes), massively start buying at thrift stores, and exchange their interior by throwing out ‘unsustainable’ products and replacing them by-products made from sustainable materials. Because that’s what we should do, right?

The paradox of sustainability

As mentioned above, we should be living sustainably right? And therefore sustainability and being sustainable are becoming a trend. With being sustainable being a trend, this initially great idea is starting to contradict itself. It is interesting to see that we want to show others we live sustainably and therefore, for example, exchange our already owned (and paid) products with ones that have the label sustainable. Or we shop the same amounts of clothes, only these ones are sustainable. This last example is, of course, better than the previous habit, though it still contradicts the message of sustainability. Materialism and sustainability are two things that contradict in essence! 

What can we as designers add?

As designers, we are educated to change the world and to add value. And I believe that there is a lot of value to gain still in this part of products and design. The more easy way to go, which is interesting for developers of (retail) products, is the material direction. Creating circular designs that give back to the world when they are discarded. Designers can also look more deeply at a new way of producing products and materials, creating as least as possible waste during the process. And my personal favorite: the inspiration and education part. This could be part of a brand’s identity but also of people. Spreading knowledge, and therefore also inspiration upon sustainability, is a great method for new creation-opinions and ideas. And I believe that through several techniques and methods, designers can cause a behavioral change, regarding fitting sustainability in our current day- and transforming society.

Article idea inspired by Dobers, P., & Strannegård, L. (2009). Design for unsustainability. Research Design Journal, 1(1).

text yvonne bruin

visuals emma eisma