Planet or people? Redefining the ideological position of sustainable design

Despite the growing awareness of the concept of sustainability society-wide, the diffusion and uptake of sustainable innovations and practices remains slow and niche. Many have attributed the lack of uptake to an ineffective sustainability discourse, which fails to drive the desired behaviours due to the limited appeal, relevance and meaning it bears in people’s lives. This paper contributes to a better understanding of the discrepancies between intended and perceived meanings generated by discourse framing and representations. The study first maps a trajectory of the sustainability concept in culture (its past, present and emerging cultural associations) using Raymond Williams (1977) Residual, Dominant and Emergent methodology. The analysis is structured in three periods, reflecting two important cultural shifts in the sustainability discourse: the ecology era, the sustainability era and the innovation era. These map the transformation of the meaning of sustainability over time, and from ‘marginality’ towards (potential) ‘popularity’. Secondly, as the ‘value proposition’ of sustainability poses an unapparent opposition of interests between ‘planet’ and ‘people’ – a dilemma posed by sustainable consumption – we set to analyse the positions and ideologies in tension within the discourse by mapping these polarities in a Greimasian square. Some conclusions are drawn upon how these positions might influence people’s views, engagement and behaviour towards sustainable products and practices. The results suggest that propositions which present sustainability as a means for ‘environmental protection’ (environmental benefits) might be unfavourable to generate mainstream appeal and engagement, while discursive frames which present it as a means to enhance ‘quality of life’ (personal and/or social wellbeing benefits) may offer better predisposition and appeal. The study also exemplifies the value of integrating socio-semiotic and cultural analysis methods into design research and design ethnography for ‘decoding’ possible unarticulated socio-cultural meanings of artefacts and communications. In this particular case, the methodology has helped to identify a favourable path to strategically advance the legitimation and appeal of sustainability values and accelerate its cultural transition.