What is Sustainable Design?

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This is a tricky question. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the definition. Even people in the industry have a hard time explaining exactly what it is. Sometimes trying to define sustainable design is like trying to get a good look at a mirage. You can see that puddle of water in the distance, but every time you move to get a better view it changes.

It helps to learn a little about the history of the term sustainability, which was introduced in the Brundtland Report of 1987. The UN called the World Commission on Environment and Development to address environmental concerns. The report they released defines sustainability as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Yikes; that paragraph was a mouthful (or head-ful). In a few words, these top level politicians got together and wrote a paper about their environmental worries. They used "sustainability" to mean taking care of everyone on earth now without ruining it for the next generation.

This is the most widely used definition. But focusing on the negative let's-not-ruin-the-earth-too-much idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And because the definition is so broad, it includes everything - which makes the term mean nothing. Part of the problem is that, taken in context, the report is actually defining sustainable development, and development typically means economic growth for nations or corporations.

Recently three "pillars of sustainability" have become more widely accepted, including: economic, environmental, and social. On Wild Hearth we are usually talking about environmental or social sustainability. Environmentalist Paul Hawken gave one of the best definitions I have come across:

“Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems—human culture and the living world.”

Basically, he says sustainability is about creating a healthy relationship between us and the earth. What’s great about Hawken’s definition is that it has a clear objective: stabilizing the relationship, and it implies that it’s possible for us to work harmoniously with the living world - a win-win solution, instead of a win-lose.


So if we apply that to design, sustainable design would mean buildings, furniture, and products that help rebalance our relationship with the earth - creating things that improve our quality of life while also protecting, and even benefiting, the natural world.

It’s a wonderful sentiment, but how do we actually apply it? Here are a few design-specific ideas:


Your money has a voice. There is a rising trend toward products made out of eco-friendly materials and/or made with less waste and pollutants. It may require a little more research, but you can find more companies focused on sustainability than ever before. When we feature products or interiors here on Wild Hearth we look for third-party verifications like FSC, GreenGuard, Green Seal, LEED Certification, Cradle to Cradle, and others to be sure we’re sharing true environmentally-friendly content and not just some company’s pr.


Fair trade both helps protect people from unsafe working conditions and enables them to rise from poverty. Buying fair trade supports people with more sustainable farming and manufacturing processes.


The life cycle of a product is what happens to it from concept to death. It is much better for the environment (and your bank account) to buy one slab of quality granite (for example) that will last for generations, than to update several times with a cheap laminate that will end up in the landfill. Buying vintage or second-hand is also a great way to go.


When we focus on people's health and happiness rather than cost or aesthetics (although those are important considerations) we install better HVAC systems, allow less off-gassing (chemicals released into the air by paint and other finishes), and design for all types of people (i.e. those with disabilities); our cities and buildings are safer, our products are easier to use, and our furniture is more comfortable. And funny enough, what's healthy for people is usually healthy for the planet.


Design affects all of us (even the toothpick the restaurant gives you after dinner was designed by someone), so imagine if all the buildings, furnishings, and products we use each day were thoughtfully made with sustainability in mind!

Tell me what you think - would you add anything to my definition?


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