Breaking through the Business of Sacrificial Trade-Offs in Sustainable Design

An Abstract for a Talk at EnsAD, Paris, March 16, 2012

Design problems often present themselves as a series of competing requirements that require ‘trade-offs’. Rather than solve such problems by ‘satificing’, Design, at its best, transcends those conflicts by reframing those problems or approaching them with lateral creativity.

Sustainable Design however, seems to re-impose constraints on design problems, such as the ones mentioned in the brief for this conference: that all creation involves destruction, that the diversity that comes from mobility risks the sustainability of the local. This presentation will explore the ‘trade-offs’ that sustainability seems to demand of design.

Part One will review a series of trade-offs that plague sustainable design and will never be resolved by Life Cycle Assessment, for instance, no matter how comprehensive:

  • Toxicity vs Durability
    More toxic processes, when not deployed for merely aesthetic reasons (like chroming), tend to be justified by increasing the durability of the resulting products. Indeed, the life cycle toxicity of many products increases because many materials have longer durability than the use or symbolic values of the products in which they are deployed, with the result that these materials quickly end up, and then break down, in landfill. The trade-off can be negotiated only with strongly regulated production and disposal, which would add whole-of-life costs to such toxics.
  • Durability vs Efficiency
    Sustainability advocates frequently exaggerate planned obsolescence as a supply-side cause of excessive waste. In some situations, powered products should be replaced before their use or symbolic value has been exhausted by more energy efficient product. Again managing this trade-off requires minimizing the embodied energy of the replacement products, and ensuring that there is an Extended Producer Responsibility take-back scheme in place for those products.
  • Efficiency vs Rebound
    It has long been recognized that in a growth-based capitalist system, improved efficiencies are quickly reabsorbed into increased output: a factory that finds a way to run 20% more efficiently, does not run for 20% less per week; and households that save money on energy bills tend to reinvest those savings in increased consumption or travel, etc. There is a lag and diversification in these rebounds, but efficiency, like convenience, is always relative and never absolute.
  • Rebound vs Equity
    An underpinning of most ecodesign today has been an ecological modernization argument, that reducing ecological impact reduction only happens when a household, company or nation is wealthy enough reinvest in retooling. To put it another way, money spent on increasing developed-nation domestic efficiency is money not spent on improving the lot of developing nations. This is why international environmental regulations have ‘clean development mechanisms’ encouraging sustainability measures in developing nations that off-set impacts in developed nations.
  • Equity vs Local
    A major decarbonizing strategy is localization, one that also enhancers the transparency, if not the ownership, of the economies by which everyday life is resourced. However, because not everything can be produced everywhere, especially food, localizing is not an option available to all people. As a result, we will be looking at a future of major migration, with all the tensions associated with that. Efforts to transition to local economies will have to temper concern about sustainable scale with vigilance against chauvinism or xenophobia.

Part Two will argue that many of these sustainability ‘trade-offs’ can be transcended by shifting from ‘product design’ to ‘socio-economic design.’ There are two pathways: peer-to-peer sharing economies, and business-to-consumer product service systems models. The former is important as it attempts to re-embed economic relations in richer social contexts. However, for this reason, it is less designable (platforms can facilitate at scale but not guarantee at a granular level; the relations cannot be commoditized); and consequently, social systems that support peer-to-peer tend to be insular (‘people like me’). The latter – closed loop businesses of offering functional sales – are motivated to ensure that their products are appropriately durable to get more efficient and less toxic. They should also be cosmopolitan about who they serve at whatever sustainable scale – though provided customers can pay. However, this means that sustainable social system design presents another dilemma:

  • Closed Loop Businesses vs Autonomy from Corporate Capital
    In a world of product service systems, all major ecologically impacting products would remain the property of the businesses that take them back at the end of their use lives. This might be last frontier of privatization, with businesses, for sustainability reasons, now owning the means of consumption in all households – not an attractive proposition in the era of Occupy Wall Street.

Part Three offers another way to reframe the trade-offs that lie at the heart of sustainable design. All trade-offs have a sacrificial logic: lose something (now) to gain something (later). There are two problems with this way of living. Firstly, it encourages a calculative approach to the world. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that a sacrifice one believes in is not a sacrifice. It is either something that you do as a ritualized practice, or it is even a pleasure in its own right. What is sustainability when it this kind of un-trade-off-able (non-)sacrifice?


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