Last, But Not Least

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . My sustainability journey has had its ups and downs, its “aha!” moments and its “wait, WHAT?” moments. But, overall, wow what a journey this semester has been! Although I do not consider myself an expert in this field by any means, I do feel equipped to go into the field of merchandising and make a difference. Before taking this course, I honestly saw sustainability as a very abstract concept. On the first day of class, I would have told you it was just about doing good for the environment; you know, the whole 3 R’s concept or “going green”. The problem with this definition is that no one really knows what that means; how do you actually “do good for the environment”? Now, I feel as though I have a much more concrete definition for what sustainability is. In my own words, I would define sustainability as the act of utilizing our resources in a way that they are maximized and do not put the earth at a deficit. Sustainability is not a technical problem, but is driven by a pattern of thinking/behavior. In addition to my definition of sustainability, my definition of sustainable design has changed considerably, as well. I originally believed that sustainable design meant designing with “green” materials or making products that look like potato sacks. Now I understand, however, that it really means, designing things that are not easily disposable. This could mean either creating goods that will last a long time and have meaning to the consumer, or goods that are designed for humility. Products that are designed for humility are goods that are naturally seen as disposable, and therefore are created in a way that they are nutritious to the environment or industry. These goods could be either biologically nutritious or technically nutritious. A biologically nutritious product is a product that can go back into the environment when it is disposed of; for example, a product that is biodegradable or compostable is biologically nutritious. A techno-nutritious product is one that has elements that can go back into the industry to be used. This helps businesses not to have to draw on extra resources, but rather use the ones that are already available and in use.

One topic that particularly interested me during this course was that of empathic design. According to A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user’s life, empathic design is a form of design in which designers attempt to get closer to the lives and experiences of the users, in order to increase the likelihood of the product or service meeting the consumers’ needs. When products meet consumer’s needs more closely, they are less likely to be as disposable. Sustainability is all about capitalizing on what we have, rather than always accumulating more. This is one concept that I think can make a really big difference in the world. If every consumer changed their consumerism habits, our society would be much more sustainable. This is something that especially interests me in the merchandising world.

One of my “aha!” moments was when I realized that the difference between being sustainable and being wasteful was in the life cycle. A sustainable life cycle is circular, while a linear life cycle is not sustainable. According to Closing the Loops in Commerce: Running a business like a Redwood Forest, “ We’re like the juggler who takes a set of bowling pins, tosses them in the air once, then throws them out, reaching for a new set. Life, on the other hand juggles one set of pins and cycles them continually.” I’ve always been one for analogies and this one hit home for me. The epiphany that I came to from this is that we must look to nature as our example. Instead of disposing of things, we must keep them in the cycle. This ensures that we are not over consuming our precious resources.

Another major epiphany that I had during this course was while we were studying labeling. In order to be certified, a product or building has to meet many qualifications. It seems like these sustainable practices then become the exception. We must figure out how to make this the norm, rather than something exceptional. I’m not really sure what that looks like yet, though. I believe that it is the job of the government, designers, and merchandisers to work together to make sustainable products customary.

As I mentioned before, I originally had a hard time grasping why sustainability was important, or even what it was for that matter. I suppose the main reason that sustainability was so hard for me was because of the paradigm I was living in: ignorance is bliss. I did not like to think about sustainability because I felt like there was nothing that I could do about it. The biggest thing that I will take from this class, however, is that I CAN make a difference. As a merchandiser, I get to set what is “cool and fashionable”. It will be my responsibility to make sustainability something that is well understood, and cool.

Knowing what I now know about sustainability, the thing that I am most curious about is: how do we get the consumers to buy into this? I began thinking that sustainability was a government issue, but have come to realize that it involved everyone. Although the government does need to regulate and the designers do need to keep sustainable practices, it is even more heavily weighed on the merchandisers and consumers. Merchandisers must make sustainability appealing and consumers must change their consumption habits. I will aim to give consumers a hope about sustainability.

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