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Sustainable Development: A designer and an architect protest.

On 20, Jan 2013 | No Comments | In ecosystems, human condition, Natural Capital, systems thinking | By Sarah Jane

There exists a seemingly overwhelming number of facets to sustainability. It literally touches every aspect of our daily lives. Most of us are barely aware we are a part of a web of life, we have become so removed from it. In the macro view, sustainability is about people (humanitarianism), money (economics) and the planet (environmentalism). In the micro view, it is about urban poverty, conflict minerals, invasive species, persistent chemicals, national birth rates, fair labor practices, financial markets, social justice, clean water, agricultural practices and an exhaustive list of topics that relate to the human condition and the ecosphere.

The Natural Step is a framework of system conditions conceived by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt of Sweden. The framework offers an effective tool by which we can view sustainability more comprehensively, in 4 simple principals.

The Four System Conditions…
. . . Reworded as The Four Principles of Sustainability
In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing: To become a sustainable society we must…
1. concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust 1. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)
2. concentrations of substances produced by society 2. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )
3. degradation by physical means 3. eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and
4. and, in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs 4. eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).

In December the legislature in Michigan broke system condition four when they passed a so-called “Right to Work” law that ultimately undermines working people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs.

Taking it to the streets

On Tuesday, December 11, I enlisted friend and architect Laurie Borer to join me on a trip to Lansing (along with 12,000 other protesters) in an attempt to persuade the Michigan politicians and the governor to reconsider decisions that were made in a rushed lame duck legislative session. Laurie, a contract architect, and I, a self-employed designer, are not union workers, nor do we have direct ties to a union. However, we are both supporters of sustainable development which advocates the well-being of all people by integrating social development, economic development, and environmental conservation and protection. Providing some definition for the term “economic development” gives a little clearer idea of why these “Right To Work” laws are detrimental to a sustainable society.

Economic development

In a sustainable society, basic human needs such as access to education, health services, food, housing, employment, and the fair distribution of income come to pass through the implementation of human rights. In order for a person or society to continue advancing, the basic needs of every individual must be met. Basically, we need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to have a decent life. This means ensuring working people a decent wage, safe working conditions and access to resources that improve their lives. The prosperity of the whole relies on the economic well-being of the many. We cannot separate the well-being of humanity from the well-being of the Earth – fair and equitable social development is essential for a prosperous future for us all.

By its nature, social development depends on democracy to encourage public participation in determining policy, as well as creating an environment for accountability in government. We must actively participate in our democracy to have a voice in policy making. That is why I felt compelled to go to Lansing on that cold December day. To use my voice for sustainability and human rights.

In a perfect world we would not need unions.

In the ideal business scenario employers would behave ethically and not only take care of their workers, but value them as an asset to their businesses and provide them a stake in the outcome of their efforts. Employers would empower workers by allowing them a collaborative voice in their work, support them with benefits promoting health, wellness and a decent lifestyle, as well as educational opportunities for growth and advancement. Sound Utopian? Rather, it is sometimes referred to as “Values Based Management” or “Ethical Management” – a key principal in “Corporate Social Responsibility” – and it is alive and well here in Michigan, at companies such as Herman Miller and Zingerman’s. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is defined by the Harvard Kennedy School as: “Corporate social responsibility encompasses not only what companies do with their profits, but also how they make them. It goes beyond philanthropy and compliance and addresses how companies manage their economic, social, and environmental impacts, as well as their relationships in all key spheres of influence: the workplace, the marketplace, the supply chain, the community, and the public policy realm”.

Why We Need Unions

While ethical companies are growing in number and more large corporations have adopted some type of CSR framework, they are not the norm, and until they represent the mainstream, we rely on workers rights organizations to negotiate for safe working environments, fair wages and working hours, and health care. Unions are essential for promoting middle class living standards and maintaining an equitable society.

During the week of the protest, I read many negative comments regarding unions. Frustrated people blame them for issues such as legacy costs and entitlement mentalities. Granted unions are not perfect, and their model could use some adjustment for current global conditions, but they provide a valued service, not only to members who benefit directly, but to the rest of us benefitting indirectly. Unions provide apprenticeships and training (education) that enriches the work force and improves quality of life for workers. For some folks, it is hard to see the value of unions today. Many are too young to know what working conditions were like decades ago before unions, when their grandfathers and great-grandfathers suffered dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. Those who question the value of unions in today’s society need look no farther than the garment shops in Los Angeles where a recent sweep by federal authorities  found “sweatshops” with unfair and dangerous working conditions. Or the fields of Michigan’s farms where migrant workers have been discovered living in sub-standard situations for low wages. Poor working conditions are a problem today, not only in places like Bangladesh where workers are killed in fires in unsafe factories, but right here in the U.S., where large corporations like Walmart are accused of exploiting workers everyday.


I feel fortunate to live in a democracy. I feel fortunate that I have a voice, no matter how small, in the policies that influence what happens in my country and my community. Sometimes people, myself included, take our democracy for granted. And while it is true there are some good folks with the public’s best interests at heart, many politicians act to address singular agendas. These representatives need to hear our voices. We are watching. We may agree or disagree with their actions or ideas, and they need to know.

WE are the public that keep government accountable. WE are the public that determine the policies.


The graphic featured in this post was created for a community development project in which I evaluated human rights affected by that particular project in the design, development and production phases of the project. It illustrates the flow of worker rights and how they affect social equity.

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