Why does sustainability need beauty?

Lindsay James

Rounding out our series on the intersection of beauty and sustainability, Interface vice-president of restorative enterprise Lindsay James reflects on what she learned after the Interface retreat and Living Future unConference. This is the final blog in the series.

More than ten years ago, when I was immersed in studying the business case for sustainability while pursuing my MBA, I would have been dumbfounded by the question, “Why does sustainability need beauty?” I can imagine my former self laughing and then quickly returning to a cost accounting case study.

Last March, Interface hosted a two-day workshop that brought together design and sustainability leaders from 20 architecture firms to explore how to “bridge the divide in the design world between beauty and sustainability.”  Between that event and the Living Future conference, which was themed “Beauty and Inspiration,” I had the opportunity to develop a better response than stumped confusion to the intersection of beauty and my chosen career of sustainability.

So what did I learn? I’ve learned that beauty isn’t something you observe as much as it’s something you experience. It’s multi-sensorial, yes, but even more than that, beauty is elegance at a systems level. I found implications of this lesson in terms of engagement as well as systems design.

sunshine_on_my_face

During the Interface retreat, architects and designers delved into the seeming divide between beautiful design and sustainable design and considered why these aren’t currently one and the same. Taking this further, I wonder: Should the sustainability movement be promoting images of distraught polar bears stranded on melting ice?  These images may be engaging, but they engage our sense of pity, not wonder. The CFL bulb became the dubious icon of our movement, but the bulb itself, and the light it produces, can hardly be called beautiful.  So why does sustainability need beauty?  Because doom and gloom images are not winning over the hearts of others. Despair is ugly; hope is beautiful. We need to leverage deep beauty to transform our movement from being based in the intellectual to being rooted in the visceral. Deep beauty can help us do that, engaging more of the skeptical public than a singular focus on scientific reason. Think of the graceful lines of a Tesla, sparking a love affair from our gut first, and our brain second.

When I heard Jason McLennan proclaim: “Beauty is our secret weapon, because what we want to change is ugly,” I nearly jumped up and shouted “YES!” from my seat at the Living Future conference. Here is a compelling battle cry that allows us to visualize not only the theoretical talk of ugly externalities (like impoverished children picking through piles of e-waste) but also the beauty embedded in the promise of solving these unintended consequences of our industrial system (imagine those same children with access to education, food, and water).

What will the world look like when we can design solutions where the consequences of our systems – intended or unintended – are beneficial? Imagine the beauty of a future where our industrial systems contribute to healthy lives on this planet, providing income as well as healthy air, soil, and water.

I don’t think anyone believes this level of systems re-design will be easy, but to paraphrase Ray Anderson, “we have to start somewhere (anywhere), and if not us, then who?” Our Net-Works partnership provides a tantalizing glimpse of what these beneficial system consequences could be: replacing virgin petroleum-based raw materials (negative externalities aplenty) with used fishing nets harvested by Filipino villagers (inclusive business generating positive social, environmental, and economic benefits).

Perhaps R. Buckminster Fuller, the father of systems thinking in design, saw past the false dichotomy when he said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” I now see that the emergence of deep beauty in our business models is not laughably insignificant, but in fact offers confirmation that we are heading in the right direction – and doing so in a way that will inspire others to join us.

Read Lindsay’s full blog (and others from the “Radical Industrialist” column) on GreenBiz.com

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