Whenever I think of sustainable design, I think of the opening sentence of Victor Papanek’s book Design for the Real World. It goes: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.” Papanek, a designer himself, went on to call designers “dangerous”, the producers of “garbage”. And that was in 1972.

These days, designers have a rather different role as societal problem-solvers, leading the way to a cleaner, better future. But I suspect Papanek is still right. Notwithstanding this new conscientious breed, there is no getting over the fact that the majority of product designers earn their living supplying growth-dependent economies with novelties for our ever-more-insatiable appetites. Increasingly, many of those objects are being presented as sustainable. Perhaps packaged in brown cardboard with little green arrows on it.

“Sustainability”. I have never much liked 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 – more of a duty than a passion. Once, we aspired to reach the moon; now, we just hope to hold on to what we’ve got. Sustainability suggests the flatlining of human ambition. So I did a double-take when I saw a new book called Sustainism Is the New Modernism. If sustainability is boring, “sustainism” is just grammatically freaky (adding “ism” to a verb?). As you’ll already have worked out, it yields the word “sustainity” (as in, from here to sustainity). Oh, and “sustainist”.


Justin McGuirk