Why Sustainability Is Boring and Merely 'Consuming Less' Misses the Point

You're probably wondering right now if this is Re-Nest you're reading. Wait, what? Have we suddenly upped and thrown our morals to the wind? Isn't Re-Nest supposed to be about conscious and responsible living and design at home? Don't we believe that the choices we make—what we use, what we buy— have an impact on the planet? Aren't we for reuse and against throwawyism? Yes, yes, and yes—which is exactly why sustainability is boring and merely 'consuming less' misses the point.

We've all heard the hot button words: green, eco-friendly, sustainable, recycled, upcycled, reclaimed, reused, non-toxic, all-natural... the list goes on. And I'm the first to admit that Re-Nest writers, myself included, use these descriptors all the time as a way of defining what is "good" and what is "bad" in this nebulous green world we're trying to create for ourselves. (See? I did it again.)

But to be honest, I'm growing tired of my reliance on these words to define what is important. Because while these descriptors can be incredibly useful and informative, more often than not they're excuses for bad design, condescending judgement and behavior (hence the top photo), or blatant greenwashing.

Are there ways we can "tweak" our thinking on this? I think so.

Note: I'm not saying we should abandon the old views entirely, but rather expand those views to include some of the broader new views in our understanding of what it means to, well, be green.

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Old View: Don't be a consumer.
New View: Buy fewer things of higher quality that you'll value more.

It's not about not consuming; it's about mindful consuming. Bruce Sterling, the founder of the Veridian Design Movement (or "bright green environmentalism") wrote in his last Veridian note that "it's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross."

Old View: Live minimally and frugally.
New View: Practice appropriatism.

As Frank Chimero writes, "Add things until it starts sucking, take things away until it stops getting better." It shouldn't simply be about consuming less; instead, we should ask ourselves 'What is better?' and 'What is appropriate?' and we should celebrate both thrift and aspiration.

Old View: Sustainable, recycled, upcycled.
New View: Heirloom, repairable, upgradable.

Justin McGuirk in this article for The Guardian says, rightly so, that the word sustainable is not an adjective you would use to describe something you love. "To sustain something is to keep it alive, pure and simple. It's more of a duty than a passion," he writes, that "suggests the flatlining of human ambition." If sustainability is an aesthetic predominantly defined by brown, recycled wood and cardboard products, then it will ultimately fail to interest the majority of the population. Encourage design that appeals to people's sense of aesthetic, not just to their sense of duty. The best green design should be able to improve your life and the planet without sacrificing style and comfort.

Old View: Reduce, reuse, recycle.
New View: Be against throwawayism.

Learn to love and take care of your stuff. Buy well and buy once. Get "radically improved everyday things," as Bruce Sterling says. The objects you use the most should be the highest quality you can afford.

What do you think?

Related Reading:
Heirloom Design, Thoughtful Purchasing, and Slow Living
Useful, Beautiful, Everyday Objects
On Judging Expensive Products and People Who Buy Them

(Image: 1. 'I Told You So' print by Kotama Bouabane; 2. Pigeon Toe Ceramics)