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Niels Schouten

sr. Industrial Engineer / Director

Sustainable design does not exist.

'Sustainable' sigh.. you here it everywhere these days. Both in the marketing story of any random product or in the service provision. It sounds great when products are sustainable. We are, for example, willing to pay more for sustainable toilet paper, even though we don't really know what this means exactly. Because if we look at the essence of the definition, in my opinion you can ask yourself whether toilet paper should be sustainable at all. In this article I want to delve into the definition of "sustainable". It seems to be applicable everywhere these days, but has it not lost its value because of that?

When one solely looks at the word "sustainable", one will mainly find the following definition:

durable
long-lasting, enduring, lasting, consistent, sound, durable, firm, durable, precious, unaltered, unshakable, indestructible, unyielding, permanent, solid, stable, steadfast, strong, firm

Most of these terms say something about the quality of a product or service. Thus the definition of 'sustainable' (until 1987) stood for: having a long duration. The definition was relative; something can be sustainable to a greater or lesser extent and there is no direct connection with "the environment" or "climate".

Nowadays, the term sustainability means more. For example, there is talk of sustainable energy and sustainable chocolate. But sustainable chocolate does not mean that the bar will last long, unfortunately. When you ask people around you what sustainability stands for, they don't just start talking about the longevity of something, but the climate and the ecological footprint are also involved. This has nothing to do with durability (long-lasting) and yet there is generally consensus about the use of these additional meanings. Where does this come from?

A new definition
In the late 1980s, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) met and subsequently released the Brundtland report, which included the report Our Common Future. This report called for sustainable development with the following definition: “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. A good initiative, however, i's a conflicting statement with regard to the meaning of the word sustainable. Where it used to be a concept to indicate a certain value in quality (more or less sustainable), it now also has a new, additional description with an emphasis on the use and awareness of materials and the impact on the future. The fact that we have given the word sustainable an extra meaning has ensured that all kinds of products can suddenly be very sustainable if the story is told in the right way.

Good intentions
While the intent of this new definition was well-meant, it also led to false sustainability. For example, disposable/single-use plastic, such as plastic cups and cutlery, has been banned since mid-2021. The Brundtland report has certainly contributed to this, but bio-based disposable tableware has come in return for this. Beautiful forks and knives made of wood and eating food from a bamboo disposable bowl all sound very sustainable, of course, and according to our new definition it is. Except for the fact that the new definition completely misses the point. I understand that cutlery made of wood or bamboo is intended as an alternative to the plastic version, but in my opinion single use of such products is not sustainable. Especially in contrast to cutlery made of stainless steel.

When I look at sustainability, and especially within product development, I would like to separate the two definitions. Sustainability will simply have to say something about the lifespan of a product. This can be better and therefore longer than that of a competitor, whereby it can be a financial or conscious choice for the consumer to choose one or the other. One can try to make products even more durable by extending the life of a product or by designing it in such a way that repairs can be carried out easily. This automatically has an impact on Brundtland's definition, because a new product does not have to be purchased until much later.

This is not to say that we should lose sight of the Brundtland definition. It is positive in all respects to develop products from regenerative materials with the smallest possible ecological footprint. However, I think we should come up with a sepeterate term for this, my suggestion is "continuously". This may not sound as catchy as sustainable, but it covers the message better. For example, we want a toilet roll to be completely unsustainable, because it must perish as quickly as possible after it has been flushed. It would be nice if we planted a new tree for every tree that had to be felled for a load of toilet rolls. This creates a process that can be continued indefinitely. The two concepts could be used side by side and also reinforce each other. Because when you score well on sustainability and a product is also 'persistent', the world gets a little better every time.

This article was written by Niels Schouten. Niels is an industrial designer, movement technologist and also director at Fabrique Invent.

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