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Natural capital an approach to sustainable fashion design

The frameworks and approaches for a better understanding of sustainable design are many, in a series of the post the most well-known tools will be presented with their advantages and disadvantages. Sustainability is complex, and none of the tools presented willfully issue. However, a combination of the different approaches can lead to a bigger understanding of sustainability and future design.

Sustainable design requires that everyone in the process play the designer and that the designer plays them all. The most important factor in sustainable design is to develop a deep understanding that everything is connected (connected design). Recommended post about connected “the most important design tool for a sustainable future”
Humans and animals are all included in nature’s ecosphere; nothing can exist of its own accord. Translated into a language we understand is that influence through a design process of different scale influence someone or something directly or indirectly locally or global in the society.

One of the most important elements in the old economy capitalistic the economic system (capitalism that is driving fast consumption is based on a few main principles; one of them is to minimize cost in all parts of the production. This makes the manufactures able to keep the price low in a competitive market and drive more sales. In a world with infinite resources this makes sense, the consumer’s benefits because of the low price, we can buy more things and get the latest product innovations; however, we live on a planet with finite resources.

In the old economy, a country’s biggest asset “nature” has never been a part of GDP. This is crazy because when we produce goods, raw materials are used, and if we run out of a certain resource, it will not be possible to manufacture the same goods.  These finite stocks of resources are often described as “natural capital”; within this, terms provide natural a series of services that benefit society and the economy.

Therefore, to be able to produce sustainable these limited stocks need to be measured and evaluated to make sure we do not run out of materials. Nature capital or eco-efficiency framework is described in the book Nature Capitalism (2002) written by  Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, and  Paul Hawking. The framework creates a foundation for understanding a new perspective on sustainable design and the value of sustainability. The framework describes the different types of capital; human, social, natural and man-made (financial), they are all described in the Eco Fashion dictionary.

Natural Capital – Man-made Capital – Financial Capital – Social Capital

  • Natural capital. The limited stocks of physical and biological resources found on earth are often described as natural capital; within this, terms provide nature a series of services that benefit society and the economy. These natural assets are referred to as “natural capital.” The framework of Natural capital supply flows of ecosystem services and helps highlight the role of nature compared with other forms of capital (financial or manufactured capital).
  • Man-made Capital (manufactured)Man-made or manufactured capital is a term used to describe goods that are used to produce other goods and services, such as machines, tools, buildings, and infrastructure and can also include financial capital (money and other economic assets).
  • Human Capital Human Capital generally refers to the well-being, health and productive potential of individual people and includes physical and mental health, education, motivation, and professional skills. Human capital elements do not only contribute to a happy and healthy society, but also improve the opportunities for economic development through a productive workforce.
  •  Social CapitalSocial Capital related to human well-being but on a societal rather than the individual level (human capital describes well-being on an individual level). It consists of the social networks that support an efficient, cohesive society and facilitate social and intellectual interactions.
Four Promoted Framework for Transformation (Click and Open Graphics)

1. Transformation productivity

Doing more with less. The framework of Nature capital creates higher consciousness and greater acceptance that we live on a planet with finite resources; therefore, nature (capital) is included as a commodity in the balance sheet as any other resource, warehouse, products, etc. When the resource is monitored, issues such as productivity, reduce energy and material intensity of the goods and services produced will increase dramatically. In principles of doing more with less is at the hearth of design (in most cases). Fuel consumption, house heating, refrigerators are examples of products with significant energy reduction. Finally, the transformation promotes an address the decrease of dangerous toxins and other chemicals such as fertilizers and herbicides throughout the product lifecycle.

2. Transformation biological design

Redesign of ecological processes transforms and change the view to more biological models such as Biomimicry (see the post what is biomimicry?) in sustainable designs. Nature has been solving and found optimized solutions that prove effective in all forms of natural capital. Nature is an incredible source of inspiration and expertise; nature runs on sunlight, only uses the energy needed and recycles everything is just a few.  (Janine Benyus in the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature). Copying nature is not a new idea, looking to Nature to solve problems is undoubtedly as old as humanity itself.  The Spanish architect Gaudi, for example, was inspired by the form and patterns of spirals inside a snail house, when stairs were designed, which allowed the rainwater to flow freely and now in the twenty-first-century biomimicry in chemistry.

3. Transformation product-service design

The flow of products as objects is transformed into services as solutions for future consumptions. Products cannot only be designed on a solution as objects but deliver the best outcome when services are included. For example, care sharing (rental cars, etc.) brings optimal value and efficiency than the “everyone owning” product models. Digital information and communication have created better systems for consumption whereof products and services are shared, less negative impact on nature and more sustainable than previous solutions as objects.

4. Transformation investment in natural capital

Natural capital investments require increased focus and help build a better understanding that the natural resources used are limited. Efficiency is the main objective to maintain sustainable management of materials and energy, the sector whereof nature capitalism is most important are transportation, electricity generation, heating, food and water use. Pollution, for example, is inefficiency, and it’s other big issues building an efficient resource management.

Waiting for better and newer technology to make radical differences, advantages, and bring new solutions is not needed to make efficiency the prioritized objective. We can use the technology already existing causing a greatly improved efficiency. Technology progress has proven not to be the solution for a sustainable future as it usually created more problems than it solves, for more than 200 years technological progress has contributed more than anything to create pollution, waste and increased to consume of natural resources. I believe it about time letting the steering wheel back to mother nature and buckle up in the back seat as we have a bumpy road head creating a better sustainable future.

The critics of natural capitalism and what I believe it’s the negative side is a lack of the design process whereof production, consumption and Waste Management needs to be more detailed. My biggest concerns and it’s not only regarding models such as natural capital is the measurement that nature = capital (money). Why do we have to measure the value of everything as capital? Therefore, to trust and hand over to finance people measuring and evaluating nature is a danger; financial theories from Adam Smith (the invisible hand) and today’s global capitalism has created the problems in the first place. However, natural capital seems suitable for large-scale production, brings a framework creating deeper understanding that natural resources are limited and at last nature, capital is a part together with other approaches to sustainable designs. For more info download Agenda 21 PDF 

Strenght and Weakness of the model

Strength (Click and Open)
  • The model is easily understandable and includes all the elements described in Agenda 21 (social, environmental, human).
    Nature capitalism can be combined with other approaches to sustainable design.
  • Nature capital is mostly useful for large-scale operations, however, not detailed enough and without a development description.
Source and Useful Information


  • Main sources and inspiration, Design Is the Problem; The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable, author Nathan Shedroff Rosenfeld Media Brooklyn, New York
  • Eco-efficiency is a term described in the publication changing course (1992) by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
  • Bio-inspiration and biomimicry in chemistry, reverse-engineering nature Edited by Gerhard F. Swiegers. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., publication
  • Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins




Check out the new Dictionary with More than 1000 illustrated terms on Eco Fashion Design
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