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Delving deeper into sustainability

Dimensions & definitions / Problems & development / Change & principles

When considering sustainable technologies it helps to think about three aspects: environmental, social and economic. These are the terms often used by examination boards. In general, this involves asking the following types of questions.

1. Environmental considerations
Looking at the whole life cycle of a product from extracting raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, through to use and ultimate disposal – What is the environmental impact? What toxic emissions are there? How is energy generated and used? How much water is used? What is the environmental impact of any packaging?

2. Social considerations
Considering the way a product affects and is used in social and cultural contexts. Is the product really needed? How does it make life better for people? Is it culturally acceptable to the people who will use it? Does it build on the traditional wisdom and technology of the community? What is the impact on social relations? Will it enhance or diminish cultural diversity? Does it bring people together in a friendly way and encourage creativity? What is it's long-term impact on future generations and the way they live together? Does it have a positive or negative impact? To answer these questions it is important to look at the whole life cycle of the product.

3. Economic considerations
HIghlighting the economic issues surrounding a product. Does making, using and disposing of the product create jobs? What sorts of jobs are created? Do other jobs disappear? Who is employed? What is the economic impact on other people, now and in the future? Is the product traded fairly?

Moral questions
All the questions listed above are moral questions. When manufacturers decide to develop a product, they might just think about the profit they will make and how to get the right product in the right place at the right price. Or they might also think about the long-term impact of the product on the environment, on people’s lives and jobs. This is taking a moral position. A responsible manufacturer will try to ensure that the product has positive, long-term benefits, as well as meeting immediate needs.

Designers or design teams are obliged to follow government legislation but they can also choose to take into account environmental, social and economic sustainability when making design decisions. The impact of most technological developments, be they products or processes, is ambiguous. For example, replacing paper bags with plastic ones at supermarkets uses far less oil (although the plastic bags are made from oil, the energy used to manufacture and transport them is less). But there has still been an impact from producing them and they can contribute towards litter.

The question that designers need to ask is:
Is this new or modified product more or less sustainable than the one it is replacing? How can I make it more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable? If it is a totally new product, what are the long term impacts?

Various definitions of sustainable development:

There are a range of definitions of Sustainable Development. Most of them need more elaboration and explanation of what they mean for us and our lives.

  • "Sustainability is essentially about humans' ability to learn, adapt and survive in changing circumstances"
     
  • "Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Our Common Future 'The Bruntland Report' 1987)

Sustainable development is about:

  • "ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and in the future. It involves the bringing together of social, environmental and economic issues into one over-arching objective."
     
  • "treating the Earth as though we intend to stay"
     
  • "living on Earth's income rather than eroding its capital"
     
  • "the interaction and interdependence of society, economy and environment, the needs of both present and future generations, the local and global implications of lifestyle choices"
     
  • "making changes to provide for the whole of the world's population while not destroying the environment."
     
  • "changing the world so that we provide for the needs of everyone on the planet now and future generations without destroying the environment."