Sustainability Frameworks

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  • There are many ways to look at sustainability. In particular, there are some defined and popular frameworks floating around the sustainability world. Some are geared more towards the evaluation of current products and services while others are more useful for design and development. Some are more quantitative and others more qualitative. The proponents of some will tell you that theirs is the best—or the only one worth using—and some even bad mouth other frameworks.

    The truth is that none of the frameworks are really ideal and, together, the all describe a more complete view of sustainability. Some of the frameworks I cover, in depth, for the book include:

    • Natural Capitalism
    • Cradle to Cradle
    • Biomimicry
    • “Total Beauty”
    • Natural Step
    • Life Cycle Analysis
    • Social Return on Investment
    • Sustainability Helix

    These are he most popular and useful frameworks I’ve found. Each offers a different, valuable perspective and, taken together, help developers better understand how to design more sustainably.

    By no means are these the only approaches, however. There are some government and international standards (like the Global Reporting Initiative, ISO 14000, ISO 16000, and SA 8000) as well as some private rating systems for specific industries (like LEED and Pharos) and lots of smaller systems in place for specific SRIs (Socially Responsible Investment funds). These aren’t as helpful for designers, however, and once you understand the 8 or so I’ve outlined above, you’ve pretty much got a great view of the issues and interdependencies.

    Is there a framework you’re curious about or value that isn’t listed above?

    4 Responses to “Sustainability Frameworks”

    1. Maybe it would be useful to describe how standards relate to or serve as building blocks for each other, such as FSC certified wood and LEED? For example, LEED could be seen as more of an planning/evaluation tool, while FSC more of a documentation/certification tool, and thus each being relevant/useful at different moments in the design cycle.

      Such an analysis could speak to the various strengths and weaknesses, or relevant focus areas, of each framework or rating system.

      If some kind of sequencing/ordering is possible (and it might not be), it might be nice to show through a graphical representation (was thinking of something along the lines of the old-school food pyramid, but it could easily be something completely different).


    2. Dave,

      Great suggestion. I’m already working with a summary framework that integrates the big 8 frameworks I list above and graphically compares them. Something to compare the major rating and certification systems would be great as well. I’m afraid it may be difficult to drill-down into a lot of detail, partly because it would take a lot of space and partly because the nuances involved can get pretty nit-picky, but something high-level would be helpful to designers, I think.


    3. Rakesh Sharma

      Hi Nathan,

      The whole topic is quite interesting. In my personal opinion the big 8 frameworks together point to one central theme – “Extreme System Design”.

      In other words, all the frameworks talk about an aggressive systems approach.

      The main question we, as designers, need to answer while designing is –
      “How will the introduction of our new design affect the equilibrium in the whole system and how can we minimize it.(as it is impossible to just get away from entropy)”

      All the above is my personal opinion.


    4. Joel Simpson

      Nathan – I can’t wait to see your book, I’ve been trying to find just this kind of thing. Two thoughts / questions come into my mind about frameworks.

      First, have you considered the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment? While not a design framework, the MEA is based on a very thorough framework for evaluating ecosystems (and in small way, designing a new process or organisation to deliver products and services is like designing an ecosystem).

      Secondly, I wonder if there are any urban planning frameworks (or outcomes) that might be interesting to compare against. I have just finished cradle to cradle, and while I find it inspiring, I find myself a bit sceptical about our ability to do large-scale systems design successfully. Poundbury is a good example of large-scale design that has a range of big, systemic goals at heart. While I applaud the attempt, it isn’t clear to me that it is a huge success. Other ‘new towns’ in the UK, like Milton Keynes, are widely derided.

      Are the design processes or frameworks flawed, or is just the scope and complexity of urban planning that has made these attempts fail? I wonder if there are lessons for those of us who have more modest ambitions for doing sustainable design.


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