May 5, 2014

 Heirloom design’ is emerging as a buzzword in sustainability circles. The concept calls for slower consumption through design that makes products more durable, repairable and upgradeable.

In an age of cheaply made goods and planned obsolescence, bringing ‘heirloom design’ to the mainstream would, in many cases, require significant changes across product supply chains along with consumer demand for more sustainable (and often more expensive) goods. But economic recessions offer a unique opportunity to rethink our production and consumption patterns. Many argue that a manufacturing renaissance is needed to lift North America out of the current economic slump that first hit in 2008.

On the sustainable production side, approaches that look to build component recovery into manufacturing practices already exist, but need to be more widespread in adoption. All products contain imbedded energy and materials—therefore a move to zero waste for manufacturing sectors and extended producer responsibility could have a profound effect on upstream material and design choices. On the consumption side, an increased focus on design for the environment could emphasize programs to simplify troubleshooting and repair which would increase local services with additional economic benefits.

A coupling of sustainable production and consumption practices could optimize gains when viewed through the lens of an economic recovery.

In thinking through these ideas, it is important to note that the concept of slow consumption is far from new. Many of the same tenants can be found in the waste not, want not ‘depression ethic’ of our parents and grandparents generation. Sustainable consumption was not an environmental goal, it was an economic necessity. While many of us know we have lots to learn from our elders, perhaps it time to add sustainable development wisdom to that list.

 By Jessica Boyle, and Bruce Dudley,