Putting the credibility back into “sustainability”

“Sustainability” has become one of the great buzzwords of the new millennium. The word has become so universal that in 2009 a report on contemporary newspeak by the Centre for Policy Studies claimed it had become "heavily used and abused" and branded it "potentially dangerous and vacuous".

ForestryAccording to the author of the report, “sustainability” is now linked to anything from development to transport, housing or communities and is “a word whose very looseness and lack of clarity makes it a perfect prefix for any activity where approval is being sought”.

There is truth in these assertions. But sustainability remains a hugely useful concept. It is a complex idea about meeting needs – for food, materials, and social welfare - without damaging the capacity of the planet to satisfy these needs over the long-term.  The problem is not so much in the word itself, but in the fact that sustainability is so often poorly understood and rarely applied with rigour. Policy makers and practitioners have also often lacked the tools necessary to put genuine sustainability into practice.

But there is a growing band of people determined to change that.  Many of these people are involved with wood. That is no coincidence. It’s no overstatement to say that the forestry sector invented the very idea of sustainability. The concept originates in forest management methods pioneered in Germany over two hundred years ago. 

In 1804, the German forestry lecturer Hartig described sustainability (which he referred to as "Nachhaltigkeitsprinzip") in the following way: "Every wise forest director has to have evaluated the forest stands to utilize them to the greatest possible extent, but still in a way that future generations will have at least as much benefit as the living generation".

Since then, foresters have gained a deep understanding of natural eco-systems garnered from experience of active management – both good and bad - over many generations.

One key lesson from this experience is that managing human interventions with nature involves trade-offs. If you set aside all your forest for wildlife, you reduce availability of land for food or building materials. If too much timber is taken from a forest, you damage soils, waterways and biodiversity.

ForestryAnother lesson is that everything depends on context. Nature is enormously variable and managers have to work with this variability and not against it. Some forests and soils are resilient and lend themselves to intensive management. Others are fragile and may be better left untouched. Many of the greatest environmental disasters (the US dust bowl, cattle farms in the Amazon) have come about from attempts to apply practices successful in one region in a different environment elsewhere.

The final lesson is that managing this complexity requires information – a combination of accurate data (on forest dynamics, soil types, human needs etc.) and appropriate tools to ensure this is readily accessible to managers and practitioners.

So for wood professionals, sustainability is a concept which is ripe with meaning, supported by increasingly clear definitions and standards, information and decision making tools. It’s a concept that needs to be nurtured, developed and explained.

It’s also a concept that can be usefully applied to other sectors and industries, always remembering the three lessons of trade-offs, context, and information systems. In recent years, great strides have been made in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the scientific analysis of the full environmental impact of products and materials from cradle to grave. More comprehensive LCA data is coming available on a widening range of industries. Computer modelling tools are being developed that can make this data readily available at critical points in the decision-making process.
One area where the sustainability concept has particular power is in design. Designers are some of the most influential people on the planet – shaping the materials and products that we all consume.

The significance of the AHEC/RCA “Out of the woods” project is in the fact that it brings the knowledge of sustainability inherent to the wood sector together with the latest scientific understanding of environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) and the skills of the design community. It makes use of innovative new information systems so that a vast amount of data relating to the environmental impact of design decisions can be assessed even before a product makes it to market. It begins to show how genuine sustainability can be assessed in real time.

Achieving this requires collaboration across a range of disciplines not often seen working together. The AHEC/RCA project brought together the sustainable forestry and technical knowledge of wood products inherent to AHEC and Benchmark, the knowledge of art, culture and design inherent to the Royal College of Art (RCA), and the knowledge of environmental LCA and computer modelling inherent to the PE International.

The RCA students were set the task of designing a chair with “sustainability” established as a key design requirement at the very start. Then they manufactured a prototype at the Benchmark facility recording precisely the amount of material and energy used. This data was entered into a computer modelling system and combined with a vast amount of other data systematically gathered by PE and AHEC on the environmental impact of all the materials and energy required.

Finally the computer modelling system generated a comprehensive environmental profile of each chair measuring environmental effects across a range of “impact categories”. The most familiar of these is Global Warming Potential, often referred to as carbon footprint. But the model also measures the potential of each chair design to increase damaging acidification in the environment, eutrophication (excess run-off of fertilisers which degrades rivers and streams), and levels of so-called “photochemical smog” which blights many urban areas.

The RCA students came to the project with a lot of assumptions about the best way of incorporating “sustainability” into their designs. Normally these assumptions would have to be accepted at face value by manufacturers and consumers. However the computer modelling system allows much more rigorous assessment of the validity of the sustainability claims. It shows how designers in the future will be able to amend designs so that they produce genuine sustainability gains before they go into mass production.

In approaching sustainability, some of the students sought to revert back to nature, using unprocessed wood to reduce energy inputs. Some increased their reliance on recycled materials or the waste products of other processes, such as woodchips and offcuts. Some focused on creating classic relatively simple and durable products with a 'timeless' feel. They reasoned that these are more likely to be kept for a long time, even as tastes and fashions change, thereby reducing disposal and the need for regular replacement. Others took an opposing view and worked towards "dematerialisation", creating products which contain more air than matter. While not necessarily durable, these products can be disposed of regularly without creating much waste.

ForestryThe environmental profiles generated for each design suggest that none of these strategies is perfect. As with sustainable forestry, there are always trade-offs and the most appropriate balance depends entirely on context. Recycling may be best if there is a reliable and good supply of recycled material close to hand, but not if huge amounts of energy are required to separate out and transport this material to the manufacturer.  Dematerialisation may be suitable for light-weight fashion items or cheaper furniture, but is hardly appropriate for products like benches that need to be weight bearing or around for many years.

The AHEC/RCA project deliberately did not set out to make environmental comparisons with products from other materials. Comparing environmental performance will come later as more industries create LCA tools in response to “green” policy development. But we have been able confirm the potential for wood to play a very positive role and to specifically inform the debate about how to measure accurate environmental profiles for designs in American hardwoods. This valuable information will now be taken forward to the wider industry as an indicator of just what can be achieved with relatively simple modelling, provided accurate LCA data exists for the primary raw material. This design project was only possible because it was able to draw on brand new, ISO conformant LCA research into 19 American hardwood species - to view the final published report visit http://americanhardwood.org/sustainability/life-cycle-assessment/.

AHEC plans to build on what has been learnt in the “Out of the Woods” project to help refine sustainability tools for the design community. The project has provided a valuable starting point and put hardwood at the front edge of the emerging debate on “green” design to deliver products with a positive environmental profile.  The journey has begun in a most creative and exciting way and there is no doubt it has informed and benefitted all the designers and partners involved. What happens now will depend on the will of the design community and their manufacturers to embrace the challenge and start to deliver environmentally positive products that consumers can have confidence in while retaining the need for them to be attractive, functional and cost effective.

“We believe this pioneering collaborative practical demonstration is essential if we are to provide meaningful criteria for assessing true sustainability. This kind of work needs to happen across the wood sector and in other industries so that policy makers can establish environmental frameworks that have real meaning and therefore deliver real change,” says David Venables, AHEC European Director.


Click to view 'LCA in Practice' short film.