What do you call Sustainability?

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  • Several years ago, I had a conversation with a Parisian educator about design and innovation. When I enquired about sustainability, she replied that French designers weren’t terribly interested in sustainability. While a certain amount of ecological awareness was already part of their culture, doing something more sustainable just didn’t get most design students in France excited.

    Further in the conversation, I asked about the correct French term for “sustainable design” (my French is VERY rusty after many years not using it). I expected it to be “design sustainable” but her answer was “design durable” (or conception durable)–literally, “design that is durable.” That explained why designers and design students in France weren’t particularly moved by this idea. It never occurred to me how different the term might be and how the translation itself might impact the imperative of its message.

    When I suggested using the term “design systemique” (literally, systems design), she paused and smiled. Her response was “that might change everything.”

    Consider how simple a change that is but what a profound difference it might make. How we frame sustainability changes people’s concepts and their involvement. This is more than just a “sales job.” It helps us understand the extent and importance of a concept. Reframing sustainability from something about durability (definitely a part of sustainability but not even close to the whole thing) to something about systems, changes our idea of where we can participate and how interesting an complex our solutions might be.

    So, what is sustainability (or sustainable design) called in your language? And, what might it be called to get more traction?

    2 Responses to “What do you call Sustainability?”

    1. Bonjour,

      Design durable is not the correct translation at all and only denominates one strategy of sustainable design – You are right. We have in french a better term that I use when speaking about sustainable design: éco-conception. (meaning ecological design development)
      France is making up for the delay in sustainable design. I teach sustainable design in France and I sense that industry, students and the government are interested in sustainable development. Now. We tend to be a little reticent in France. C2C has just been published in France this year! Time to get your publications out here, too.

      Interestingly the longwinded explanation about sustainable design on the english Wikipedia is currently illustrated by a …french design for a solar car charging station, the SUDI.

      In german, sustainable design may be translated by Nachhaltige Gestaltung, similarly far reaching and encompassing a term than the english “sustainable design”.


    2. Lottå, Thanks for these details! I’m glad to hear that there are better terms to use in French and German. I hope that’s the case in other languages, as well. My concern with “éco-conception” is that it doesn’t reflect the economic, social, and cultural aspects of sustainability, too.

      Here in the USA, we’re hearing (more and more) “sustainability” replaced with “resilience” in conversations from people who know the issues. This speaks to something even larger, of course, since sustainability is just a part of resilience, of course.

      As for Design is the Problem being published in French or German, I would love it but the market is such that most people in Europe speak English already so publishers don’t usually print these translations. This is probably why C2C is only now being translated. Design is the Problem is now available in Chinese and Korean may be next. These are where most translations occur, now, as they are large markets with (relatively) fewer English speakers.


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