When we talk about sustainability, we consider the environment and ‘going green.’ We talk about renewable energy, recyclable materials, and curbing carbon emissions to ensure a healthier planet. Or we might think about sustainable business practices and how to keep companies profitable for years to come. Big problems, desperately needed solutions, limited resources, and a focus on longevity.
While we need sustainable practices for the planet we live on and the businesses vital to our economy, a commitment to sustainability requires more purposeful living in more areas of our lives.
In honor of Earth Day, let’s consider how we can think sustainably about a fundamental aspect of our lives: our bodies and the products, services, and spaces our bodies use.
The core concern of the sustainability movement is finding long-term solutions that meet our needs both now and in the future — solutions that require good stewardship of limited and precious resources. Sustainability is a mindset of conservation and care. It plans ahead and solves problems before they come up. But sustainable solutions aren’t always obvious in the here-and-now. It takes foresight to realize that what works today may not work in the future. And it takes guts to embrace what will pay off in the future, even if it might not pay off right now.
So what does sustainability have to do with our bodies and the products, services, and spaces our bodies use? The fact that our bodies are continually changing.
Living in a changing body is an inevitable part of the human life cycle. We grow up, we mature, we grow old, and all along our body functions differently, requiring new lifestyles and accommodations suitable to our evolving circumstances. In fact, the natural process of aging and the changes in ability that come with it often mean acquiring disabilities. But aging isn’t the only way our abilities change. Injury or illness can bring about temporary or permanent disabilities at any time in our lives. So in some ways, disability is an inevitable reality of the human body. It’s not a matter of if our abilities change, but when and how.
Our malleable, unpredictable bodies require a sustainable future — a future that has anticipated our shifting abilities and needs. We need to be prepared for different relationships between our bodies and the world around us — between our bodies and how our bodies interact with the products, services, and spaces we use. We need to plan not only for what our bodies need now, but for what they might require in the future. And how do we make sustainable plans for our bodies? Inclusive design.
Inclusive design is sustainable because it’s user-centric and accounts for various bodily configurations and user experiences. Inclusive design aims to make products that can be easily used by people with various types of abilities and by as many people as possible. Not only can inclusive design meet more users’ needs now, but inclusive design can meet an individual user’s needs throughout a lifetime of bodily changes.
But inclusive design isn’t just a sustainable solution for our bodies’ needs. Inclusive design is ecologically sustainable. By equipping our changing bodies, inclusive design reduces waste and consumption.
Inclusive design reduces waste:
Inclusive products will continue to meet our needs, even as our needs change. Unlike other products, inclusive products won’t be thrown away and end up in landfills when we can no longer easily or effectively use them.
Inclusive design reduces consumption:
Inclusive products don’t pose the problem of requiring additional purchases so that we can keep using the things we already have but can no longer use. They don’t need to be retrofitted with special equipment to make them work for our shifting abilities. And with inclusive design, we don’t have an overwhelming problem of needing more stuff for our stuff. This is especially significant when it comes to retrofitting buildings and structures so that they can accommodate diverse abilities.
There are even more reasons why inclusive design is sustainable for both our bodies and the environment. By reducing waste and consumption, inclusive design encourages thoughtful spending habits — buying less and buying well. The longevity of inclusive design not only means that we can use products for a long time, but that we should count on inclusive products lasting longer because they are more purposefully designed. This includes sourcing quality materials that contribute to quality performance and more purposeful stewardship of raw materials and industrial processes.
These values run counter to our throwaway culture — counter to the temporary gratification of cheaply made, limited-use products begotten at any cost and disposed of without a second thought. But these dominant values cannot stand. We face new challenges that need sustainable solutions for both our environment and our bodies: first, a global climate crisis that requires action, and second, a rapidly expanding senior population as baby boomers age and acquire disabilities. Unlike the first challenge, the second poses no threat. But both situations call for careful planning and smart solutions that will meet our present and future needs.