What Does Sustainability Mean for the Art World?

“Viewing Machine” by Olafur Eliasson at Inhotim Public Contemporary Art Museum - Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil. “Viewing Machine” by Olafur Eliasson at Inhotim Public Contemporary Art Museum - Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Photo: Diego Grandi / Shutterstock.com.

As our culture takes on more social responsibility and action, creative fields such as architecture, sculpture, and other various artforms have followed suit. Artists looking to join in on the current conversation surrounding sustainability are using their work to send a message, either by its theme or the media used to create the piece.

In 1983, in an effort to encourage global cooperation toward sustainable practices that benefit both the economy and the environment, the United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development. This group, now known as the Brundtland Commission, first worked to define sustainable development and art, creating the 1987 guidelines that have been used to anchor environmentally conscious decisions in a variety of industries in the decades since:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Artists embraced this definition as a means to understand their individual impact on the environment. The idea of sustainability in art has led to groundbreaking works that leverage unique media and send powerful messages about climate change, political policy, and social injustice. It is through sustainable art that artists hope to not only change how their work is made, but to inspire social and cultural change as well. But just how has this definition taken on new meaning in recent years? How are artists and institutions alike transforming the way that art is created?

Here, our editors explore.

Sustainability and Art

When it comes to art, the term “sustainability” takes on many meanings, and public opinion on this social and economic movement has expanded dramatically in the past few decades. And while the Brundtland Commission was an important first step toward fundamental change, policies and regulations aimed at reinforcing sustainable practices have continued to evolve in the years since to reward those who follow sustainable practices and encourage adoption.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was created by the United Nations in 2015, and outlines seventeen core goals across a variety of categories to help the world become a more environmentally friendly, peaceful, and prosperous place. Most resonant with the art world is goal twelve, centered around responsible consumption and production. This goal requires companies to work towards environmentally conscious practices throughout every facet of their operations, and increase the use of natural materials within their products. Many items in mass production are experiencing a manufacturing overhaul, forcing artists to re-evaluate the pillars of design in order to comply with this new mandate.

While the policies are evolving at a high level, the idea of sustainability is also impacting the daily lives and work produced by individual artists. Although sustainable art isn’t the most lucrative of fields, it is intended to provide perspective on the world in its current state, suggest potential solutions, and raise awareness for issues that artists are passionate about.

How Sustainability Inspires Social Consciousness

While many artists are adopting increasingly eco-friendly practices, some cultures have been implementing these principles for centuries. In Japan for example, Furoshiki, the art of Japanese fabric folding, emerged in the Nara period (710-794) as a way to protect valuables in transit, but it has recently caught on as a sustainable and beautiful way to carry necessities and wrap gifts.

side by side image of furoshiki gift wrapping and kintsugi vase.

Left: example of Furoshiki wrapping. Right: example of Kintsugi vase.

Japan has also been leading the movement of upcycling, or transforming broken or unused objects into something usable, since the 15th century. Kintsugi is the act of repairing broken pottery with gold, which encourages avoiding waste and embracing imperfection. Both artforms have helped transform popular thought toward sustainability by honoring worn objects, and to cement Japanese art as a leader in the movement.

Outside of cultural movements, artists across the globe have taken on the idea of sustainable art in different ways. Some works, like John Sabraw’s Toxic Sludge paintings, use actual pieces of polluted earth as their media. Others use more traditional materials to bring awareness to a particular issue, such as Paulo Grangeon’s 1,600 Pandas, which installed paper-mache sculptures in a highly visible public space to confront human impact on endangered species.

Pandas set up on sidewalk.

Paulo Grangeon’s 1,600 Pandas in Bangkok.

The work of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson epitomizes how artists use sustainable materials to underscore the danger of climate crisis. In his 2014 installation titled “Ice Watch,” the artist used large chunks of ice that had fallen off of a glacier as a call to action.

How Schools and Institutions are Getting Involved

Schools and institutions too, have embraced sustainable practices; weaving them into their curriculum. By teaching students the importance of sustainable practices and how to create work with responsibly-sourced materials, schools are helping to change the way we think about design, manufacturing, and consumerism.

Influential industries are also pivoting toward embracing more sustainable practices, like fashionan industry that comes in second as the largest contributor to global pollution. Fast fashion, or inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, is touted for its accessible price points and ever-changing styles. But until recently, consumers weren’t aware of the underpaid labor and danger to the environment caused by many popular labels. And while there are many fast fashion brands still in business today, some high-end brands are revamping their business strategies to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers and improve their ecological footprint. They are making this pivot by setting up recycling programs, being more upfront about their manufacturing processes, and using more sustainable materials and textiles for their products.

To help prevent fast fashion from continuing into the next generation, fashion schools are encouraging their students to rethink their approach to clothing design and manufacturing. The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, for example, recently unveiled a new major called The Business of Denim, which focuses on green ways to develop denim fabric and how to create a more sustainable practice within product lines. The Fashion Institute of Technology is also implementing sustainability programs that encourage the development of eco-friendly products. In recent years, they have even installed a garden for creating vegetable-based dyes as well as a school-wide composting system for leftover cotton and other fibers.

Beyond fashion, traditional art schools have implemented sustainable practices into their framework as well. The Maryland Institute College of Art has created a concentration specifically for this idea, helping their students engage their creativity with the social and environmental issues facing the world today such as bringing new life to old structures instead of tearing them down, or looking for ways to create art out of what many would consider trash. Nonprofit organizations like The Center for Art Education and Sustainability educate institutions as well as students on the ways in which they can expand sustainability practices across the globe.

Types of Sustainable Art

Sustainable art can take on a variety of forms depending on the materials used and the purpose behind the piece. Below, explore some of the most prominent types of sustainable art, their origins, and some of the most notable artists in each category.

Closed-Loop Fashion

Closed-loop fashion is the idea of creating a piece of clothing that, at the end of its lifecycle, can be transformed, reused, or recycled back to its original form. By creating a closed loop within the manufacturing industry, clothing brands can bring sustainability and eco-friendliness into the fashion industry and therefore, at lower prices.

Clothing brands like For Days and Marine Layer base their business model off a closed-loop manufacturing cycle, offering consumers a chance to contribute to their recycling program with their own garments. Consumers can also buy recycled clothing directly from them, with some brands even offering to swap out the item for less down-the-line.

Ecological Art

Ecological art varies slightly from many other forms of sustainable art because of its prominent focus on restoration and activism. The term itself originated in the 1990s, although examples of ecological art date back to the 1960s. Art that comes from the ecological movement looks to make a statement about ethics, civic responsibility, or social injustices. Unlike other works of art that simply highlight a growing concern, this movement seeks to improve some aspect of it, however small.

Improving upon something already created to help transform a community is a guiding principle of ecological art. By transforming the Civic Commons in Chicago, the RCC Organization was able to revive a once-loved building, restoring it to its former glory to help uplift a community and provide a new space for local artists to gather and create.

Land Art

Land art, also known as Earth Art, Eco Art and Earth Works, first emerged as a product of the conceptual art movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Land art uses materials derived from nature to create artwork woven into the fabric of the land, often created in remote locations to further emphasize the power and beauty of nature. Photographs taken of these works, often in notable landmarks across the United States and Britain, were brought back to studios and displayed to help further popularize this movement.

Spiral Jetty in Salt Lake, Utah.

Spiral Jetty in Salt Lake, Utah.

One of the most popular examples of land art is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Created out of mud, salt crystals, and rock in 1970, Spiral Jetty is located in Great Salt Lake, Utah. At 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide, the sculpture is a shining example of an art movement that works with the land and forces the audience to consider the entire environment as part of the work.

Renewable Energy Sculpture

A cross-categorical art form, renewable energy sculptures help to bring renewable energy to communities in a unique and artful way. This art movement produces sculptures that use solar, wind, hydroelectric, tidal, and geothermal resources to create movement and energy. This blend of science and art is relatively new to sustainable art, emerging out of the ability to harness the earth’s natural resources into power. By creating a piece of art that can collect that energy, the artists remind viewers of nature’s true beauty and power.

Fish hanging mobile—painted steel rod, wire, string, colored glass.

Fish hanging mobile by Alexander Calder. Sold for $17,527,000 via Christie’s (May 2019).

Artist Elena Paroucheva has created a collection of renewable energy sculptures that has intrigued the world. Her Wind Art is designed to hold multiple wind turbines, thus combining utilitarian, aesthetic and cultural functions through her body of work.


Upcycling, the art created from material previously deemed unusable, unwanted, or broken, is a form of sustainable art that has gained traction in recent years. Largely in part to the world’s growing plastic problem, artists use materials that would otherwise be in landfills to create their work. Upcycling is also a guiding force behind a brand new industry, as it has proven valuable to artists who are looking to make something unique, environmentally-friendly, and loved by consumers.

Red African mask.

Tallonnee by Romuald Hazoumè. Sold for £17,000 via Sotheby’s (April 2019).

A notable example of upcycling is Romuald Hazoumè’s African Masks, made entirely out of discarded plastic gasoline containers. Hazoumè used his work to bring awareness and criticism to the political systems that perpetuate a damaging cycle of consumption. When speaking of his work, Hazoumè has said, “I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day.”

Sustainable practices and eco-friendly art have been expanded upon in recent years as society begins to become more conscious of their impact on the environment and future of our planet. While sustainability requires a reconsideration of how we consume, manufacture, and design art and objects, it also provides the opportunity for artists and designers to rethink their approach. Sustainable art blurs the line between science and design for the benefit of both the audience and the environment.

Sources: The Huff Post | Corporate Citizenship | Grantmakers in the Arts

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