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It is not an easy assessment to make. What products and services are actually sustainable? How can they be recognised and what are they worth? Customers need to have knowledge and prior education in order to choose, judge and appreciate sustainable offerings. However, who is it that can provide this education about sustainable products? The EU? Government ministries? Or maybe even brands themselves? In this context, can a design education also be an education on sustainability?

By Lutz Dietzold.

When businesses offer sustainable products, what knowledge do customers need to have in order to gauge, understand and appreciate this offering? There are numerous initiatives that promote the development of the knowledge needed. In one of its programmes, UNESCO has defined the term “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD). In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research coordinates its implementation. ESD stands for an education that aims to empower people to think and act for the future, with approaches that are taught in different contexts by different institutions.

Another related approach even closer to the field of design is the “New European Bauhaus” initiative, through which the European Union wishes to create a forum for new, sustainable and inclusive spaces and projects: “The New European Bauhaus has the ambition to make the Green Deal a cultural, human-centred and positive, tangible experience.”

The role of businesses

Then there are of course the brand companies themselves that create publicity for their products. Yet can it really be their duty to educate customers and consumers about sustainability-related topics? Must they now also use their marketing and corporate publicity to explain why sustainable products are better and what they can do? How credible can such communication ultimately be when it comes from a product maker or service supplier itself, and not a neutral authority? The term “greenwashing” is quite relevant here. It refers to saying rather than doing in relation to sustainability, and also refers to companies that put the spotlight on experimental, small-batch products with a green image while the other 98% of their products remain as normal and are hidden behind the major platform given to the green sister product.

Sneature is a 100% compostable sneaker made from 3D-knitted dog hair and a mushroom sole. Photo: Emelie Burfeind

Is it even possible to condemn this approach? Is it not logical for businesses to report on new, exciting developments that at least show a prospect? This motivation is understandable, but it does not justify such actions. Proportionality should apply here as a principle – a principle that strives for authentic brand communication and does not lead the message’s recipients into believing any incorrect points of emphasis. Credibility is one of the most important attributes that customers demand from corporate publicity, and it offers very new opportunities as well as possibilities for interaction. Brands that are serious about their sustainability strategy have credibility when they communicate content that poses a demand while simultaneously offering the solution.

A product’s design always references a cultural context and can realise a significantly deeper and further-reaching message than just the object’s appearance. Good brand communication that can establish values-based contact with customers plays a role in conveying this cultural context. If customers see themselves reflected in a company’s values framework, can identify with that framework or even expand their own values positively with it, this creates the basis for communication that can reach a new depth at a substantive level. If we reverse the question, what would prevent a company driven by values and content from publicising the drive that it has?

The United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a global plan to promote sustainable peace and prosperity and protect our planet. © United Nations.

The position of design

Whether the influence of the design discipline is to be assessed rather positively, because it contributes to the development of high-quality and durable products, or rather negatively, because it skilfully drives up the sales of even superfluous products, is a discussion that has accompanied us for a long time and will continue to do so. Ultimately, we must also incorporate a specific understanding of design into the debate about these questions. Aesthetic education that aims to identify and value quality in the design and realisation of products may potentially lead to fewer, though better products being sold, which will then stay in use for a long period of time. An awareness of design sharpens the perception of an object’s value and empowers people to recognise attributes such as longevity, quality and timelessness.

This is an empowerment that the German Design Museum Foundation has been promoting intensively with “Discover Design”, a national education and culture initiative for children and adolescents.

Economic pressure

Users can repair and upgrade their Shift Phone themselves with the help of (video) instructions. Photo: SHIFT GmbH

It is no longer possible for brands to succeed without incorporating sustainability and climate protection. Dealing with these topics is not seen as an exotic, voluntary add-on, but rather an increasingly fundamental element of a modern and healthy company. The sustainability factor can still be used to a certain degree as a way to differentiate a brand, though this advantage will keep shrinking as it becomes more of a given, including through the forces of national and international legislation. However, the pressure on companies to act and do business sustainably is not only growing because of legal requirements and customer demand. Entities such as banks and financial markets are also recognising that sustainability is a current and, most importantly, future factor for doing business. Share prices and access to credit can be directly dependent on commitment to sustainability.

Let us return to the new European cultural experience. If Europe succeeds in becoming a pioneer for sustainable economic and social transformation, businesses will have the chance to take a leading role in this development. Major brands that are a step ahead of legal requirements in this cultural context will have the ability to publicise their success in these endeavours. Not only does sustainability benefit from this, but so too do the company and its customers.

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The Author: Lutz Dietzold

CEO German Design Council

Lutz Dietzold, Geschäftsführer Rat für Formgebung © Lutz Sternstein
Lutz Dietzold © Lutz Sternstein

Lutz Dietzold (*1966) has been CEO of the German Design Council since 2002. Prior to that, he worked as a design communication freelancer and was managing director of Designzentrum Hessen (Hesse Design Centre), where he was responsible for the strategic reorientation of design promotion.

Grounded on his studies of art history, classical archaeology and German language and literature in Frankfurt Lutz Dietzold has gathered extensive experience of design, branding and innovation. He also has a special interest in promoting design and up-and-coming designers. In 2011, he became a member of the advisory council of the Mia Seeger Stiftung (Mia Seeger Foundation) and a member of the Stiftung Deutsches Design Museum (German Design Museum Foundation), subsequently taking on the role of chairman in 2020. He was appointed to the Dieselkuratorium’s Board of Trustees in the same year and is dedicated to strengthening the pioneering role of commercially successful innovators.

Lutz Dietzold is also working to increase the international orientation of the German Design Council and its global network of leading companies from industry and the business world. This includes setting up a subsidiary in China.

Lutz Dietzold publishes articles on a regular basis and gives national and international lectures on a variety of topics. He is also a member of numerous committees and juries and sits on the project advisory board of the German Federal Ecodesign Award of the Bundesumweltministerium (German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety).

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