Materialism and sustainability – a literature review

Materialism and sustainability: The correlation between our relationship to the external world and ontological views, and how design can influence this.


There is a clear discourse within the sustainability debate about changing how objects are made and the capitalist system within which they exist. The capitalist system spawns a materialism centred on acquisition and within it sustainable practices are to a large extent focused on technical product improvement. The emotional durability of objects as well as the material durability is discussed in connection with sustainable consumption. In a world where resources are limited and the number of people is increasing rapidly, would a more meaningful relationship with the objects around us decrease the need to own many things? To what extent designers can influence this, is a prominent question.

This literature review addresses our ontological views as a basis for our actions, and explores the relationship between our understanding of materialism and sustainability. It examines the basis for the anthropocentric world view that is prominent in the west, and blamed for much of the environmental degradation we see on the planet today, through the scientific advances and philosophers like Descartes and Kant that have shaped these views. This exploration is done from the perspective of the deep ecology movement, that called for an ecocentric world view and new materialist approaches, that call for an even more radical approach to ontology, the study of the nature of being, acknowledging matter in all its form to a much greater extent. It also glances at material culture studies and non-scholar movements, like the minimalist movement, that call for changes in the way we perceive and live with our material surroundings. Finally, it reviews emotionally durable design’s effect on product lives and reflects on how human-centred approaches to design might influence user behaviour for extended use.

Ontology and anthropocentrism

Ontologically humans, throughout modern history, have positioned themselves as ‘other’ than the rest of the planet, in an anthropocentric world view. This view has long roots but is not always how man has seen himself. Sessions (1995) explains how ecocentric world views were the norm within most primal societies but that this started to change when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. The Greek philosophical tradition, that Western society draws upon, as promulgated by Aristotle, rejected previous heliocentric cosmological speculations, and proposed an earth-centred universe where man was superior to other beings. This hierarchical view conformed well within the Christian tale of creation and has influenced thinkers till this day. Perhaps the most influential of them, Descartes witnessed the scientific advances of his time, and claimed they would make humans ‘the masters and possessors of nature’ (Sessions, 1995, p. 161). It is worth noting that Sessions (1995) points out that this anthropocentric tradition is rather short in human history, as man has distanced himself from nature through civilization, and that ecocentric views, for example those of Spinoza, have appeared regularly without being adopted more generally.

Sessions’ reasoning suggest that our ontological views of the world are shaped by the way we live. Scientific advances give us the impression of being ‘masters of the universe’ and are increasingly reinforcing the view of humans as the most important of beings, in a spiral of anthropocentrism. However, both more recent scientific discoveries and the ecological and social challenges we are now facing, call for a review of these thoughts about the external world (Coole and Frost, 2010; Simms and Potts, 2012; Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012). This is also the core of the deep ecology movement, which from an environmental perspective, called for an ecocentric world view. Arne Næss (1974), who coined the term deep ecology in the 1960’s, argued for the intrinsic value of nature.

The question of intrinsic value is also relevant to the questioning of Bogost when outlining his object-oriented ontology that he calls an ‘alien phenomenology’. It is a flat ontology that opposes the theoretical separation of human and nature following the correlationist ideas of Kant’s philosophy in that ‘being’ exists only for the subject (Bogost, 2012, p. 4). For him, this goes a long way to explain why things are so much ignored in themselves and rather conceived as ideas. Things, as he defines them, comprise not only the finished object but the components they are constituted with, i.e. the butter and flour that are integral to process of making a cake. By considering solely the idea of the thing, we lose out on wonder, awe, knowledge and what he calls ‘making objects that do philosophy’ (Bogost, 2012, p. 85). Miller (1987, pp. 85-108) on the other hand, attributes this perception of inferiority to what he calls ‘the humility of things’; their discrete character makes it difficult for us to see the important roles they play in our cultures and societies.

The prevalence of the Cartesian line of thought, emphasizing the mastery of the thinking subject, that Sessions (1995) evokes, is also discussed by Coole and Frost (2010). They further outline how these beliefs go hand in hand with the scientific discoveries of Descartes time and emphasize that more recent scientific developments, such as in the domain of quantum physics, discredit the idea of matter as passive and to be dominated by humanity. Despite the very material character of the world, they profess that materialism has been a ‘sporadic and marginal approach’ to reality. The mechanical Cartesian/Newtonian view of the world allows only for humans to possess agency, whereas a new materialist view allows for at least animals to have agency and goes some way to assert the vitality of nature (Coole and Frost, 2010). Malafouris (2008) on the other hand, clearly argues for material agency when describing the potter’s actions while confronted with the properties of the clay in the making process, subsequently obtaining a ‘sense of agency’ all the while respecting the restrictions of the material.

Materialism and ontology

Simple google searches on the terms materialism and consumerism, especially image searches, display rather similar messages in terms of meaning; the two have become synonymous in our current society (Miller, 2005, p. 4; Simms and Potts, 2012). However, most dictionaries (Wikipedia, no date;, no date, i.e.) distinguish between economic and philosophic materialism. The former is connected to consumerism and acquisition of good and the latter simply affirms the material character of the world, all being of matter and energy. There is no doubt that the economic ideology of consumerism, which encourages a never-ending shopping spree, is unsustainable. Decoupling materialism from consumerism and acknowledging its more philosophical content could potentially benefit the environment. One can draw parallels to situations where supposed inferiority has justified the mistreatment of someone or something. In ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, Coole and Frost (2010, p. 5) underline how our ontological believes shape our relationships and actions regarding the external world and, consequently, do not solely have philosophical value.

A part of the Cartesian ontological view is the distinction between spiritualism and materialism, mind and matter, which the anthropocentric view is founded upon. The belief that only humans have souls, once again reinforces the superiority of humans (Coole and Frost, 2010; Sessions 1995). Spirituality often manifests in the shape of religion. In this context, Miller (2005, p. 1) points out how material culture plays an important role in embodying the beliefs any religion, however much this religion is based on critique of materiality. He uses the paradox of Hinduism as an example to illustrate how a religion can have a great material culture but at the same time ultimately believe that the material world is an illusion to be overcome by spirituality (Miller, 2005, p.1). In his studies of fashion in Trinidad he explains how clothing being on the surface of the body is not a sign of superficiality and meaninglessness (Miller, 2010, pp. 12-41). These are only two examples of how Miller advocates for the importance of material culture.

The calls for a different relationship to material goods and materiality is coming from many directions, from Simms’ and Potts’ (2012) manifesto for ‘the New Materialism’, to the minimalist movements that are emerging around the world, through bloggers and films that encourage decluttering (Minimalism, 2016; Rector, 2014). These movements, to a large extent, stem from the realisation that our materialistic ways of living are causing us harm in a personal manner, not just financially, as demonstrated by the research of Kasser (2010), that highlights the psychological problems that materialistic goals can create. From the perspective of many of these spokesmen, the main argument seems to be that we should care about people and not things, by focusing on the quantity of things owned, and not the quality of the relationships with these things. This demonstrates that the ideas of separation between the spiritual and the material are very present in western culture and that material culture is not considered an integral part of social life. Simms’ and Potts’ (2012, p. 26), as advocates for a new materialism, differ from the minimalist movements in expressing the belief that a more engaged relationship with our things could have positive effects on our well-being.

Design, materiality and sustainability

The question, to what extent design can influence a person’s relationship to an object in a way that influences sustainability, is much discussed. The argument that material durability is not enough to ensure that an object stays in use, is stated by more than one researcher (Fletcher, 2012). Chapman (2005) argues for the creation of emotionally durable design, demonstrating ways in which a designer can optimise attachment to an object. For Chapman (2005, pp. 30-44), we are consumers of meaning and not matter; even through material goods, it is the meaning or even the experience that we search. In such we are also consumers of knowledge and he stresses that consumption is inherently human. He goes on to provide an explanation for mass consumption: ’In the quest for meaning, we search for a new object when the previous does not have further meaning to offer.’ This, he affirms, is because goods are manifestations of our ever-changing selves, our hopes, aspirations and achievements. He argues against the industrialised production of standardised goods as an antithesis to human diversity (Chapman 2005, p. 47).

However, this attachment for which Chapman searches, does not necessarily optimise the life span of an object in terms of extended and continued use. Therefore, this attachment does not prevent acquisition of new objects. Fletcher (2012) indicates that the objects that are kept and used the longest are not initially designed to be special, but become special through the use and relationship with the user. She goes on to point out that most work in this area still focuses on the durability originating from the object itself, whereas the social nature of fashion would imply that another approach is more suitable. This suggests that the impact of the designer in a traditional design setting is limited and that the context of use is of greater importance for sustainability. For Fletcher (2016, pp. 140-141) objects as ‘signs’, tend to lose value with changing trends and accrediting more importance to the object itself and its materiality may counter this. Moreover, she believes that true or new materialism offers a direction in which materials are assigned this preferable importance and for design this implies involvement of the user with the object’s materiality. Consequently, a different approach than conventional design methods that are performed by the designer in near solitude, far removed from the context of use, is desirable.

The intention of human-centred approaches is to allow the designer to obtain knowledge about and from the user, which can, in the purpose of sustainability, be beneficial to create alternative user-object relationships. They include ethnography; observation and interviews to understand what people do, co-design; providing users with tools to jointly create and articulate ideas, empathic design; attempts to empathize with users, the lead-user approach; inviting a user at the forefront of the specific field to co-creating, and participatory design; treating users as experts to design solutions for their current situation (Steen, 2011). At the same time, confronting users with and object’s materiality implies a rather hands on approach where knowledge of its material properties are shared. It might even require a direct experience of the material agency, much like the potter’s experience of obeying the properties of the clay (Malafouris, 2008).

Most literature concerning human-centred design discusses its potential for innovation in a business settings, creating work environments or consumer products. This is also Kolko’s (2014) angle when he describes ‘how to use empathy to create products that people love’. Furthermore, human-centred approaches have not been as much explored in fashion as in other design domains, except for sportswear, that commonly uses the lead-user approach (Steen, 2011). A point-to-mass design strategy still dominates fashion design and focuses on the genius of the head designer of a brand (Fletcher, 2008, p. 187; Fairs, 2015). For sustainability and a meaningful user experience, this way of designing clothing makes little sense and leaves consumers ‘de-skilled and dissatisfied’ (Fletcher 2008, p. 119).

Boess (2004) makes the case for human-centred approaches to be a step towards sustainable design because they enable the designer to critique technical innovation in relationship to its application and prioritise ‘intersubjectivity and creativity’ rather than profitability in the design process. Participatory design and co-design are two human-centred methods that involve the users directly and their potential to stop the negative trend of unsustainability because they are ‘antithetical to consumerism’ that is based on individual search for happiness, is underlined by Sander and Stappers (2008, p. 9). In “Design: When everybody designs”, Manzini (2015) presents his vision of design for social innovation, a design that produces sustainable solutions, which is essentially a co-design process. Here he emphasizes the new role of the designer as facilitator (Manzini, 2015, pp. 68-70). This role consists in assisting non-professional in what Papanek (1984, p. 3) thinks of as their inherently human endeavours to design. When Ballie (2013), creates co-design possibilities to engage the consumer and change their habits in her PhD research, it is this role that she investigates. She develops interventions and a co-design toolkit that enable attachment and fulfilment with the user but concludes that research over time is needed to observe the impacts on user behaviour. The fashion industry’s approach to co-design is variants of mass-customisation, with companies like Unmade (no date), allowing for customers to alter design details of a product. These approaches have little in common with the ways in which users engage with their garments physically that are documented in Fletcher’s ethnographic field work in the ’Local Wisdom’ project (Local Wisdom, 2017). They do not either exploit the social character of fashion to improve attachment, another aspect of fashion and clothing use that is documented by research projects like the before mentioned.


This review illustrates the connection between our ontological views and our actions; the former are shaped by how we live and in return influence how we act. Furthermore, the understanding of matter is deeply connected to our understanding of the world and the importance we accord to the things in it. The ontological separation of humans from the rest of the material world has allowed us to ignore the intrinsic value of nature, which has contributed to the environmental crisis that we are experiencing. However, this crisis, along with the global social crisis (United Nations, 2011), are provoking new approaches to ontology and materialism. Coole and Frost (2010) claim that ‘reconfiguring our understanding of matter [is a] prerequisite for any plausible account for coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century’.

According importance to an object is a part of the emotional attachment to it. We know that design to some extent can create attachment with the user, but that this attachment might not extend the time of the objects use, which is largely connected to the user’s habits and context of life. Extending a products use is primordial to increasing its sustainability. Because traditional design has limited effect on this and it is mainly the users themselves that lay the premises for extended use, it seems logic to involve them in the design process. Direct involvement can happen through participatory or co-design processes. However, little is known about the actual impacts of these processes on the extended use of objects, in part because studies of this subjects require extended time frames, and in part, and in fashion particularly, because few attempts at these approaches have been made within product design.

The philosophical nature of the examined ideas leaves the designer somewhat disconnected to the reality in which objects circulate. It is probably too ambitious to aim for the public to adopt a flat ontology and assimilate ideas of material and object agency in the name of sustainability. However, the way we use things is susceptible to external influence, although further research is needed. In the same way that such philosophical ideas should guide anthropologists but not allow them to disown the ‘normal’ vision of things, designers do well to keep in mind that they are designing for ‘the mass populations who consider themselves to be, in fact, people using objects’ (Miller, 2005, p.10).




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