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Delving deeper into sustainability

Dimensions & definitions  / Problems & development / Change & principles

The overwhelming weight of informed scientific opinion now says there is very strong evidence that the amount of fossil fuels we burn is the biggest factor in the increase in greenhouse gases and the major cause of climate change. So, if we do things to ‘benefit the environment’ but do not do anything to reduce our use of fossil fuels, then we are merely tinkering around at the edges. If  we are to deal with sustainable development we must consider the impact of our lifestyles (primarily our energy use and our purchases) on people and places elsewhere on the planet. 

Climate change is the big urgent threat. However, climate change not only affects the environment but also has global social and economic repercussions relating to poverty and hunger. Climate change will affect all of us (and may be doing so already) but it is the poor who suffer worst and first. It is the poor who are affected most by flooding, major storms, desertification and droughts.

When climate change produces a rise in sea level which makes life impossible in Holland and Bangladesh, what will happen? The population of Holland will not die, they will move. Accommodating these people will create problems for Europe but it will happen. 

The population of Bangladesh will have to try to move but it will create enormous problems for the neighbouring countries and it is impossible to imagine it happening without millions of people dying.

It has been calculated that each person in Europe consumes three times their share of the world’s resources. Each person in Bangladesh consumes a third of their share of the world’s resources.

• We need to think about social, environmental and economic issues, both as consumers and designers

• We need to think through the implications of our personal decisions

• We can make a difference, by adding serious thinking about sustainability issues to the rest of our thinking as Design and Technology students

Principles of sustainability

'The total beauty of sustainable products'
This is the name of a book by philosopher and design guru Edwin Datschefski. In it he describes five simple tests for sustainability - cyclic, solar, safe, efficient, social

1. Is it cyclic?
Is the product made from compostable, organic materials, or from minerals that can be continuously recycled in a 'closed loop'?

The idea here is that there should be no such thing as waste. All by-products should be the 'food' for something else, just like photosynthesis. Metals can be recycled again and again. Something that really has to be thrown away might be burned to release the energy 'locked up' in it. Biodegradable materials can be composted to provide nutrients for the soil. In this way carbon and nitrogen can re recycled.

"We've often heard that we're running out of resources. But there are still the same number of atoms around on the earth's surface - we have simply converted atoms into molecules that are of no use to us. With continuous recycling of both organic and inorganic materials, we will never run out of the resources we need."

Edwin Datschefski


2. Is it solar?

Do the products in manufacture and use consume only renewable energy that is cyclic and safe?

The sun can give us energy directly through photovoltaic cells, and through using other types of solar panels. But wave and wind power are also the product of the sun's energy. Hydro-electricity is made possible by rain falling: again this is powered by the sun. Biomass can be converted into energy. The sun makes plants grow, and we eat the plants (or animals that have eaten the plants). Thus, our energy comes indirectly from the sun. Also we can burn biomass to generate heat energy.

"Each day more solar energy falls to the earth than the total amount of energy the planet's 6 billion inhabitants would consume in 25 years. We've hardly begun to tap the potential of solar energy"

US Department of Energy - quoted by Edwin Datschefski


3. Is it safe?

Are all releases to air, water, land or space the 'food' for other systems?

A safe product or process is one that does not harm other people or life, physically or chemically. You need to consider the whole life cycle of the product - the raw materials, extraction and manufacturing processes, the transport involved, the impact of distribution, sale, use (and misuse!) and ultimate 'disposal' of the product. A totally safe product generates nothing harmful, nor any waste, at any stage. We need also to think of the social impact of the product or process - see point 5 below.

4. Is it efficient?
Every product requires energy, materials and water for its production and use. Can an equivalent or better product be produced with less?

We need to reduce our use of energy, materials and water by up to 90%. In the long term, is the product economic to make? Or does it create problems that someone else will have to pay for in the future?

5. Is it social?
Does the product manufacture and use support basic human rights and natural justice?

Are the working conditions safe and compatible with human dignity? Are people paid properly at all stages of the supply chain? Does the product reinforce equality of opportunity? Does it enhance cultural diversity? Does it encourage participation in society?