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Sustainability thinking

an overview of craft+design enquiry Volume 3, 'Sustainability in Craft and Design'

This month sees the launch of craft+design enquiry Volume 3, 'Sustainability in Craft and Design', edited by Kevin Murray. As many authors in this issue acknowledge, the particular role of craft in sustainability is broader than a series of discrete energy-saving acts. The question of sustainability is not limited to the immediate environmental impact of craft production. Rather, it extends to the symbolic value of craft as an alternative way of being in the world.

Kathryn Wells


Sustainable thinking - an overview of the craft+design enquiry journal, volume 3 articles

The question of sustainability is discussed in a broad context in the 2011 craft+design enquiry journal, Volume 3, Sustainability in Craft and Design, edited by Kevin Murray. As many authors in this issue acknowledge, the particular role of craft in sustainability is broader than a series of discrete energy-saving acts and is not limited to the immediate environmental impact of craft production. Rather, it extends to the symbolic value of craft as an alternative way of being in the world.

The Arts and Craft movement as sustainability
The question of the definition of sustainability itself is discussed widely.  The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) defines sustainability in the following terms:

as designing our lives, work, products, social systems, and relationships to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In particular, Mary Loveday Edwards in her article on applied Arts in England- evaluating endangered subjects suggests that there are three main ways in which we might talk about sustainability: economic, social, and ecological and argues that ‘real sustainability requires environmental, social and economic demands - the 'three pillars' of sustainability - to be integrated or reconciled’.

Across all papers, a common source of reference material is the documented experience of the Arts and Craft movement in the United Kingdom and the writings that preceded, surrounded and emerged from it.

Peter Hughes in his article, Post-consumer subjectivity observes:

The Arts and Crafts Movement arose during an epochal change in the human condition brought about by the deployment of the steam engine powered by fossil fuels.…As is well known, the first phase of industrialisation caused widespread social upheaval, exacerbated by rapid, unplanned urbanisation and environmental deterioration.  This maelstrom of destruction and creative potential was the ground for the emergence of the Arts and Crafts and it is no accident that the question of how we—collectively and individually—are to live was then a central preoccupation.

Hughes cites  Ruskin as offering a truly radical critique of some of the central values of Western civilisation. 
In his lifetime, The Nature of Gothic, a chapter from the Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), became his best-known work.  It was considered so significant that William Morris described it as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’ and his Kelmscott Press published it as a separate volume in 1892.

William Morris, as both a crafts practitioner and a social activist, was deeply influenced by Ruskin’s thought.  In his essay How we Live and How we Might Live, he succinctly outlined his requirements for a decent life:

First a healthy body; second, an active mind in sympathy with the past, the present and the future; thirdly, occupation fit for a healthy body and an active mind; and fourthly a beautiful world to live in. (Morris, 1910–25, p. 25)

Hughes notes further the historical occasion of the founding of  the Guild of Handicraft in 1888, by C R Ashbee, originally locating it in a poor, working class area in East London. In 1902 it was moved to the Cotswold village of Chipping Campden.  The Guild was perhaps the boldest attempt to realise the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement in practice, intimately uniting life and work in a utopian rural setting.  Ashbee was deeply influenced by Ruskin’s philosophy of art and Morris’s socialism. 

It would seem that the question addressed by Ruskin, Morris and Ashbee, the question of how we are to live and what constitutes the good life remains central to a sustainable future. 

Mary Loveday Edwards notes the significance of how Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada made talk about integrity and the emotional pull of the handmade acceptable within ceramics. Edwards references a current reinterpretation of Leach and Hamada and the spirit of his words (in Williams, 2002: 62).

The term ‘lasting value’ … can mean the use of high quality materials and techniques to ensure the longevity of an object. It can mean finding an afterlife for materials or components that would otherwise be discarded … But it can also mean the perpetuation of traditions and conventions valued in the past, now threatened by social, economic or other changes.

Matthew Kiem, in A transformative agenda, examines the potential of craft to facilitate cultures of quality and social transformation in the interests of sustainability. This approach is theoretically grounded in the work of Tony Fry. It draws particularly on his concepts of sustain-ability and Sustainment.

Kiem draws on the writings of Ezio Manzini who argues that addressing the challenge of our unsustainability must be, at least in part, a concern with dematerialising our economies and daily practices (Manzini 1992: 230).

More specifically dematerialisation would involve a greater shift from owning products to using services; an increase in facilities of repair, upgrade, and renting; the minimisation of negative impacts in the lifecycle of products; reuse and recycling; and finally, elongating the useable lifespan of products.

Craft: Relationships, communities and dialogues
In her paper examining ‘Past Visions/Future Possibilities’ Edwards explores the reasons why the applied arts might be considered ‘endangered subjects’ through the findings of the National Arts Learning Network project.

Edwards examined why the applied arts might be considered ‘endangered subjects’, drawing on the National Arts Learning Network (NALN), a four-year, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funded 'widening participation' initiative.  This project, comprised of specialist art, design and performing arts institutions, worked together to widen participation in higher education.  One of the areas in which NALN was involved was to look at the category of Endangered Subjects at art and design institutions in the United Kingdom (UK) and to examine the reason for their supposed decline.  Her paper traced the project from inception to completion and discussed the findings.

The findings about applied arts and craft, here, was about process, ‘an approach to process as opposed to concentrating on objects produced’. This approach to the notion of craft can be related to a developmental approach.  Edwards also looked at new neuro-scientific research such as The Neural Bases of Complex Tool Use in Humans (Johnson-Frey, 2004) which found that using tools such as those in craft activities, involves the use and strengthening of ‘widely distributed, yet highly interactive, [brain cell] networks’.

Edwards asked

What does this mean for applied artists? … Do we look at crafts as a process rather than place so much emphasis on the product? Or can the idea of personal development via making or consuming crafts survive the taint of the amateur?

The intention of the research project was to challenge and refine positions with concrete case studies from the contemporary applied arts …, in order to help identify key issues, tendencies and trends, possibilities and opportunities. A workshop, identified closely overlapping areas:

  • sourcing and consumption of materials
  • location and identity
  • the role of technology
  • scales and methods of production in relation to making
  • individual developmental aspects of the applied arts
  • social values, and
  • social developmental aspects of the applied arts

Another question which was begged was

whether, the ‘ideology of craft’ was in fact the central problem: 'craft' is automatically and un-reflexively seen as meaning 'natural' and remains unquestioned but also undeveloped and largely irrelevant to a community further and further removed from nature.

In testing the hypothesis and looked at over lapping commonalities, Edwards submits that;

a craft practice concerned with sustainability is primarily concerned with relationships, the question then becomes how best to facilitate and develop these relationships.

This takes us into the territory of craft as an agent in social sustainability and asks how we make explicit craft as a facilitator of positive social change within the context of ethical and ecological sustainability.

With regard to the central place of this dialogue, Peter Hughes in his article, Post-consumer subjectivity posits that

the key to craft, however, is the fusion of design and making and the ongoing dialogue this establishes between maker, object, materials and processes.  By collapsing, to greater or lesser degrees, the distinction between the mind and the body, object and subject and, ultimately, the material and spiritual, craft represents a challenge to the dominant conceptual framework of our civilisation.

A global critical exchange of values and relationships
Rod Bamford in Ecology and aesthetics ...looks at the historical arguments about craft values and their impact on the logic of a number of ‘design for sustainability’ arguments.  Bamford suggests that ‘craft emerges as an antidotal signifier to the combined impacts of hyper efficient production and rampant “throw away” consumerism’.  He looks at the utopian goals in light of global considerations

However Bamford observes that, in particular, in the carbon context, notions of benign impact and enduring value associated with craft can elicit contradictions.

In assuming the necessity of some type of social conformity to enforce and manage the requirements of sustainable systems, our limited understanding of the complexity involved suggests that an ongoing critical exchange of values and relationships of power is necessary to avoid injustice....

A singular focus on carbon reduction largely addresses technical causes and the efficiency of mechanisms without adequately addressing their impact on human behaviour and consumption. ...

With the European Energy Commission estimating that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase (2009), design’s critical role is under scrutiny. The primacy of physiological and material measures of success in consumer economies has informed design for sustainability, or eco design responses, that are largely instruments for efficiency....

There are opportunities for craft practice to more actively engage the social and technological particularities of the contemporary every day.

As a counter-point to the writing emerging out of the European art and craft movements, Sharmila Wood, in her article Handmade in India examines the current state of the craft sector in India.  Wood explores how a growing interest from consumers in ethical and sustainable materials, processes and objects, is having an impact on Indian artisans and craft workers. To illustrate how those in the Indian craft sector are dealing with issues related to sustainability and craft, the paper discusses the work of AVANI in the Himalayas, and Khamir Craft Resource Centre in Bhuj, Gujurat.

Over the last century, industrial production has steadily replaced traditional handmade production in countries around the world. In India, this has meant the loss of traditional markets for artisans and craftspeople, who struggle to compete against the economic and production efficiencies of volume manufacturing, ushered in by advanced technology, and mechanization.

The perceived connection between craft and sustainability has provided an opportunity for employment in the crafts sector. As markets open up in urban metros within India, and abroad, craft producers are able to continue selling their products and generating livelihoods. In India, craft is the second largest employer of people living in rural areas after agriculture, and the sector, has employment requirements for millions of people, whose livelihoods and income are dependent on selling their craft.  

For women, craft is not only an important source of supplementary income, it also has implications for increased bargaining power, and socio-economic status.

Wood cites Maggie Baxter has worked with artisans in India, in her article, Threads of Life, which observes the work of Shrujan:

On a material level, the women have been able to improve the lives of their families. They can invest in land, afford good health care and provide better nutrition by purchasing cows and goats, and they can do this at their own pace, from home and without leaving the village. On a personal level, economic empowerment has transformed these women into confident and competent business women.  

Similarly, Matthew Kiem, in A transformative agenda, advances a wholistic view of sustainability as sustainment.

Developing sustain-ability is a project directed at establishing a condition of Sustainment. Fry uses the concept of Sustainment to refer to a state in which the total inertia of human socio-technical existence, including cultures and economies, act to secure rather than damage the possibility of long term futures. The Sustainment may be equated in scale with the epochal shift of the 18th century Enlightenment movement which founded many of the concepts and institutions that persist into the 21st century (Fry 2004: 36).

As such, Sustainment suggests an immense cultural project, encompassing changes to everything that underscores our sense of being-in-the-world, including economies, material and symbolic structures, knowledge, embodied experience, and social relations.

In addressing Scottish craft pathways, Emilia Ferraro, Rehema White, Eoin Cox , Jan Bebbington and  Sandra Wilson look at broad concepts of sustainable development

Sustainable development is more than a concern with climate change and/or recycling. It is a concern for the longevity of all forms of life, for social equity and for the environment conceived as a context of relationships that exists and take on meaning in relation to the beings who inhabit it…

Ferraro et al, contribute to current debates on the ‘persistence’ of craft  in ‘modern’ societies (cf. Greenhalgh, 2006) not against or in spite of modernity but, on the contrary, as ‘a modern way of thinking otherwise’ (Adamson, 2010:5). Common aspects of existing definitions include a concern for and commitment to:

  • the longevity of the planet and of Life in its multiple forms
  • living in an ecologically sustainable manner, within environmental limits
  • equity and socially just outcomes
  • the needs of future generations, and
  • democratic and inclusive processes that allow all people to
    have a say in decisions and actions that affect their present and future life.

Their paper notes

the new Creative Scotland body brings screen, drama, literature, crafts, arts, dance and theatre activity in Scotland under one roof. This leads to several possible conclusions. First, as craft is gathered up under a broader framework it may suffer from having less access to funding that is specifically focused on its activities.

At the same time, a broader framework may allow greater support for the art sector across the board…Such an alliance would require significant conscious effort and communication on the part of policy makers and craft practitioners.


For an in-depth exploration of these views and the research behind them, readers are encouraged to explore craft+design enquiry Volume 3 (2011).


Kathryn Wells, Communications Manager, September 2011


Related Links



Jaya Jaitly, 2007. Employment in the Craft Sector, One India, One People, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 April 2010].

Maggie Baxter, 2003. Threads of Life, Seminar Magazine, [online] Available at: maggie baxter.htm[Accessed 25 April 2010].





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Updated: 6 February 2016