What is the true definition of Sustainability and the principles of Sustainable Design? With nothing being clearer than the malleability of its definition.

A layer of clarity regarding what it may mean to implement the values of sustainability into our modern culture? And what it may look like to apply its principles to the design of today.

To contextualize, the World Commision on Environment and Development defined the concept of sustainability as one that upholds the needs of the present, whilst preserving the ability of future generations to meet their own .

To say that this definition is ambiguous would be an undeniable understatement. However it helps frame the cascade of perspectives. Which have since interjected themselves into the discourse of what it truly means to lead a sustainable lifestyle.

Although simplified, at its core, sustainability is an environmental movement; one that recognizes the current environmental crisis, ye has a lack of consideration for other social and economic factors.

Consequently, Sustainable Design is the application of sustainability principles to the entirety of the architectural process. Including design, construction, and more.

However, with growing dissent regarding the true efficacy of these principles. There has never been a more urgent time than now to open discourse from all angles. In order to truly define the limits of what this movement has to offer.

A myriad of dissenting opinions regarding the scope of sustainability contributed to the obscurity of the movement as a whole. Making it increasingly difficult to outline what it may mean to lead a sustainable lifestyle.

Sustainability is an optimistic take at a challenge which presents itself to be seemingly insurmountable.

But for its unparalleled positivity and promise. The limitations of sustainability in its inability to address societal issues makes it more foam than substance.

As an environmental movement sustainability does not stand alone. With ideologies such as deep ecology seeking to rectify our misconstrued relationship with the earth through different modes of thought.

In attempting to define sustainability it would do justice to examine what sustainability isn’t; most clearly defined through the regressionist doctrine of deep ecology. As stated by Devall and Sessions, deep ecology is a “regression rather than a progression, into nature and primitivism” .

Deep ecology’s ubiquitous call for a regression into traditionalist values conversely helps us find clarity in sustainability’s proposal of progression. Moreover, into a world which amalgamates technological advancements with environmental accountability.

If the task at hand is to define the gray matter that is sustainability. Then it is of irrefutable importance to recognize perspectives which are reactionary to the movement as a whole.

A substantial dissenting opinion to the sustainability movement is its entry into the mainstream. With proponents arguing against its neoliberal and inherently capitalist implementations.

This is clarified in the scope of large corporations adopting the values of sustainability into their marketing strategies. Making their products more palatable to an increasingly informed population.

But under the guise of environmental concern. How much do companies such as McDonalds and Starbucks truly care about the environment? Especially when given an ultimatum of profit over positive environmental impact ?

The danger that lies in the use of sustainability as a badge of validity by large companies for marketing purposes. Is centered in the dilution of a movement as a whole.

This perpetuates a false narrative which pacifies the general public into a hazardous. Moreover, untruthful belief that we are on track towards the realization of sustainability principles, when in reality, we are not.

Consequently, the general trend of industry in seeking eco efficiency as a spectral cure all damages the creed of sustainability’s goodwill by memorializing free trade, encouraging globalization, and not properly addressing societal and ethical concerns which are intrinsically tied to a neoliberal narrative .

Despite the multifaceted interpretations of sustainability both by the corporate world as well as in smaller scale advocacies. The core of sustainability lies in the luster of its optimism and conviction in respecting the space humanity occupies; regardless of how it may be misconstrued to conform to capitalist values.

If sustainability is the environmental movement which proposes a progression into a world of environmental concern founded on the celebration of nature. Then sustainable design is the application of such ideals into the planning and construction of the spaces we occupy.

Discursively, sustainable design vilifies flawed design techniques of our current society. Namely modernism, as the antagonist perpetuating our world’s current environmental plight.

Consequently, sustainable design hands the entirety of the issue to designers. Much like sustainability, sustainable design is not any more concrete. Sustainable design stands at the intersection of many dialogues surrounding environmentally conscious constructions.

The philosophy buttressing the importance of beauty in sustainable design is grounded in the idea that humanity will consciously preserve constructions that are visually appealing .

Some architects however, enter into a combative conversation with this perspective, arguing instead for a green conscious form of design which heralds physical longevity over aesthetic appeal .6 Which philosophy holds more persuasive power is not my responsibility to dictate. Despite contrary visions fiddling with the aesthetic and efficacy of sustainable design. There exist concrete rating systems which validate a building’s operation under the tenets of sustainability.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for example, is an accolade awarded to green buildings. Systems such as LEED, which adhere to a strict set of regulations, act to ground an otherwise migratory concept.

As sustainable design is derivative of the sustainability movement as whole. Furthermore, its variable applications also bear the weight of a double edged sword. One that can damage as much as or even more so, than it seeks to help. Conclusively, it can be said that sustainability is the optimistic environmental approach of being accountable for humanity’s footprint. By concentrating efforts in preserving an environment which sustains future generations.

As with all good things however, sustainability has been “hijacked” by larger corporations. Moreover, imperialist impulses, clouding good intentions with the grayscale of capitalism and the sustenance of profit over environment. Sustainable design takes the entirety of the environmental problem. In addition, hands it to designers, tasked with carrying the weight of searching for a form of construction. Lastly, which upholds the values of sustainability. Sustainability is the engine which drives the core of sustainable design.

By Kenneth Lee

1Iris Borowy, Defining Sustainable Development for Our Common Future

2 Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology, 48

3 Dauvergne and Lister, The Politics of Big Brand Sustainability

4 Richard Welford, From Green to Golden: the Hijacking of Environmentalism, 37

5 Jason McLennan, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, 235

6 Brenda and Robert Vale, Green Architecture, 186