The reality of most sustainability measuring is that there are no perfect scores. At best, there is “better” and “worse”—and these aren’t often clear. Complex systems, by definition, connect to many issues and often create surprising interactions and conclusions and even unintended consequences. An example as seemingly simple as “paper” or “plastic” grocery bags yields unsatisfying results (both sides can be adequately argued), depending on how and what you measure.
So, as a designer, if you’re looking for a cookbook to tell you how or what to design, I’m sorry that there is none. For most of your time on a project, you may only have a hazy idea that you’re heading in the “right” direction of
a more sustainable solution. You should be prepared to be blindsided by assumptions you thought were undeniable (such as plastic being better than glass or Styrofoam being better than paper in certain circumstances). Maintaining an open mind and a systems-level perspective can be difficult in the face of myriad issues and often trivial pronouncements in the press or even from experts.
You won’t ever create a perfect solution. Ever. You will have to be satisfied with creating better solutions along the way—each update, hopefully, better than the rest, and potentially no solution ever reaching your ideal vision of “how it should be done.” Every design solution is a compromise of some kind, bowing to structural, financial, or environmental realities, and conforming to customer, market, or client desires. That’s the nature of design. If you’re creating real solutions for real people, the market will probably not yet be ready for the ultimate solution you envision. This, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to push as far
as possible and to achieve as much as you can for the moment.
As long as you check your assumptions from time to time, keep educating yourself and others on the current state-of-the-art of both understandings and possibilities, and strive to do what you can, you’re on the right track.
“Sustainability is the competitive strategy in boom time, turnaround strategy in down time, and survival strategy in a collapse.”