There is no such thing as sustainable material


Frau in Hocke

Growing Garments: Inspiring pieces that reflect the relationship between humans and nature. A degree thesis by Anouk Schädler, Trends & Identity. Photograph: Anouk Schädler © ZHdK

“Oh, but that is just a drop in the ocean”: Such pessimistic thinking imposes itself when material issues are concerned in design. Why? Well, because sustainable materials do not exist per se. Rather, their use determines how sustainable they are. And yet, this is not simply a given and can therefore be changed. Constant dripping wears away the stone. A plea for optimistic action.


Statements like “Sustainable materials should be preferred” apply neither generally nor concretely. What, then, is “sustainable plastic” or “sustainable sheep’s wool” meant to be?  Only a material’s use can be sustainable or not. A raw material can be obtained simply or at great expense, just as its processing may involve toxic substances or enormous amounts of energy. A material can be produced in a few, simple processes or in many, expensive ones. This process can cause animal and human suffering. The finished material can be heavy and bulky, come from far away, require a lot of maintenance or its disposal may present a serious environmental problem.

“The marketing of sustainable materials and their use points to problematic window-dressing.”

Recyclability, which is often equated with sustainability in the marketing of materials, depends on existing cycles, which in the materials sector only exist where this is economically viable. With plastics, this is the exception rather than the rule. The “-able” label (compostable, recyclable) seems to provide sufficient evidence that a clear conscience is indeed a prospect. The marketing of sustainable materials and their use points to problematic window-dressing. This kind of design has created its own sustainability aesthetics with clear, easily readable codes: bioplastics = sustainable, vegan leather = a sustainable alternative. Yet the use of a specific material is not primarily subject to social or ecological sense. The material must serve a purpose, fulfil technological conditions and satisfy constantly changing aesthetic and social requirements.

“Not taking more than can be regenerated, is a complex project and an impossible undertaking in our mass culture.”

To be sustainable in the true sense of the word is impossible. Only sustainable management makes linguistic sense. As economic activity is closely interwoven with the culture of mass production, which, in turn, is linked to a modern identity and therefore difficult to abolish, there is little hope. For sustainable economic activity can barely exist today. To carry something over into the future, that is, in the literal meaning of sustainability, not taking more than can be regenerated, is a complex project and an impossible undertaking in our mass culture.

Nevertheless, when it comes to intervening in the world, a different perspective on sustainability and materials prevails. The time we spend in a certain environment necessitates action. Without optimism, everyday life makes little sense.

Glancing into the design laboratory makes a lot seem possible: completely and very quickly compostable fungal materials, which can be produced by organisms without requiring additional energy and which can stand the test of high-tech plastics; or 3D-printed ceramic sculptures which — submerged into the sea — offer corals a habitat.

“Besides using feasible materials, designing materials allows setting an important course.”

Design offers a wide range of possibilities. Besides using feasible materials, designing materials allows setting an important course in terms of sustainability considerations. As in the heyday of material inventions, between 1850 and 1950, we must now once again find new materials for complex solutions. Just like then, dwindling resources are an oppressive and therefore important driver of sustainability thinking and design innovations. Today, the apocalyptic idea of an approaching end no longer has purely economic connotations, but also leads us to fear for our humanistic and social achievements. These days, the erstwhile exclamation “Oh dear! There’s not enough ivory to go around!” (which led to the invention of plastics like celluloid and bakelite) and the pre-industrial shortage of wood (which prompted the invention of coke for iron smelting) has become “Watch out! We are causing profound and irreparable damage to the Earth’s ecology” (with which consequences?)

Ours is a good time for design: for synthesising new and well-known biopolymers, for thinking in cycles, for experimenting and reducing. Socially, smart material design acts as a catalyst for evaluations and attitudes. It also serves as a basis for choosing procedures and processes. Here lies the duty of sustainable design.


The Material Archive is a cooperative venture between the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur, Sitterwerk St. Gallen, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, ETH Zurich, ZHAW, Bern University of the Arts and ZHdK. It consists of various material collections at the respective locations. In association with an online database, which is designed as a digital reference work, the various sites offer broad and well-founded access to materials knowledge.
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