A brief history of (un)sustainable design

Authored by: Damon Taylor

Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138910171
eBook ISBN: 9781315693309
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter examines the emergence of the paradigm of sustainability in the practice of product design over the last half-century. It begins by acknowledging the difficulty in attempting to write any such history, while suggesting that it is by discussing the discourse of sustainability in design that any coherency can be achieved. The analysis centres upon three strands: international conventions and reports from bodies such as the UN are used as an index of the shifting nature of how the problem of sustainability has been understood; the response of the ‘design world’ to such changes is charted; and, the manner in which this has happened against a developing consumer culture is then mapped against these coordinates. It is argued that the changing relation of design and the wider culture to issues of sustainability can be understood as an emergent ‘environmentality’, a certain form of subjectivity that determines how such issues can be conceived of, which thus shapes the nature of any designed response. Three phases of this developing mindset are then identified: the ‘greening’ of design; ‘ecodesign’; and sustainable approaches. Each of these paradigms are then critically examined to demonstrate how design, as a field of activity, has responded to the shifting definition of the problem as the model we now recognize as ‘sustainability’ has developed.

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