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Frequently Asked Questions

These common questions about sustainable design and their short answers are taken from Nathan Shedroff’s book Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What is sustainability?
    Sustainability is an approach to design and development that focuses on environmental, social, and financial factors that are often never addressed. Sustainable solutions strive to improve the many systems that support our lives, including efficiently using capital and markets, effectively using natural resources, and reducing waste and toxins in the environment while not harming people in societies across the Earth. Sustainability focuses on efficient and effective solutions that are better for society, the environment, and companies. Sustainable organizations are often more successful when they pay attention to the details of waste and impacts, allowing them to function more cleanly, increase profit margins, and differentiate themselves from other organizations.
    For more information, see page xxi.
  2. Why does being sustainable cost more – or does it?
    Sustainable solutions don’t always cost more than unsustainable ones. Many solutions are focused on energy and material efficiency, and these actually cost less up-front. Because our economic system rarely includes all of the social and environmental costs and impacts of products and services of the items we buy, the producers of sustainable solutions try to compensate for these costs. Doing this can cost more up-front, but often costs less over time since these solutions may prevent problems later.
    For more information, see page 129 and 139.
  3. Is climate change proven?
    There is overwhelming evidence of climate change, leaving no doubt that the climate isn’t what it used to be. What’s at issue is whether this change is due to human activity or cyclic conditions in the environment. While there is no unequivocal proof that all of the changes are due to human activity, there is massive overlap between the evidence of climate change and the details of human activity. The majority of reputable scientists believes that an overwhelming amount of climate change is due to human activity, despite the lack of conclusive proof.
    For more information, see www.climatechange.net
  4. What’s a carbon footprint?
    One of the most important aspects of climate change seems to be the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulating in the upper atmosphere. Scientific models explain why this may have an impact on climate change and how serious this is to the environment and our way of life on Earth. One of the most prominent strategies for reversing these effects is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we send into the environment. A carbon footprint is a way of estimating the amount of carbon dioxide our activities generate, and by understanding this, we can find ways to lower these emissions. It represents the total amount of carbon dioxide our activities generate—from heating our homes to driving cars to eating and drinking to working and living.Carbon footprints are difficult to calculate exactly because there are so many variables. However, most carbon footprint calculators do a great job of estimating our personal or corporate carbon emissions by using averages. A great place to start estimating your carbon footprint is the calculator at Al Gore’s Web site: www.climatecrisis.net.
  5. Are hybrids really better than other cars?
    Hybrid cars are certainly not a long-term answer. Hybrids are better than hydrogen cars or really big cars (like SUVs), and buying a hybrid car sends a powerful message to the automobile industry, as well as other companies and government agencies. However, in the long run, smaller gasoline cars are better for the environment overall, and electric cars are probably the best.
    For more information, see page 73.
  6. Is nuclear power a more sustainable energy option?
    Proponents of nuclear energy point to the reduced carbon dioxide emissions of generating electricity via nuclear power over traditional methods. But there are many other issues that need to be taken into account, including the amount of CO2 generated in the mining, transportation, and refining of uranium, construction of the plants themselves, dealing with the waste over thousands of years, and the abysmal safety record of the nuclear industry with regard to workers, miners, and the environment. These additional costs make nuclear power a much weaker investment than spending less money on efficiency technologies and alternative energies, such as solar, wind, wave, hydro, and other renewable sources.
    For more information, see page 28.
  7. What can I do to become more sustainable?
    Because sustainability encompasses so many issues across the social, environmental, financial, and political spectra, there are many things each of us can do to quickly build a more efficient, effective, and sustainable world. We can start by learning about the issues and then evaluating our impacts with carbon footprint calculators (which is quick and easy to do). Next, we can simply make better choices, starting small, by changing our behaviors to be more sustainable. One of the most important things we can do is simply to be more efficient, using fewer materials and energy in our activities. This might mean wasting less food, not driving when it isn’t necessary, turning lights and electronic equipment off when they’re not being used, insulating our homes to be more efficient, and so on. When we purchase new things, we can look for more efficient versions or ones with higher ratings. Buying locally-produced items is generally more sustainable and helps build resilient local communities. Most of these changes don’t even impact our quality of life much, and most sustainable solutions help us do more with less rather than just give us less overall.
    For more information, see www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction and www.wecansolveit.org/content/action.
  8. As a designer, what can I do to make the world more sustainable?
    First, designers can understand the breadth of sustainability and the strategies for developing more sustainable solutions. This is pretty easy (and is covered in this book). Next, designers can start using these strategies in their work, even if only a few at a time. We need to become advocates of sustainability issues for our own organizations and our clients, partners, and other stakeholders. We can address sustainability issues in our projects whether our clients and organizations appreciate them or not, making more sustainable solutions even when those around us don’t do so.Over time, designers can address more issues and integrate more strategies into their work naturally. This is easiest when all team members are aware of the issues and strategies and when sustainability becomes part of the process. Ultimately, sustainability is most powerful when it becomes part of an organization’s values and mission, but we don’t need to wait for this to begin in order to have an impact now.
    For more information, see page 266.

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