Energy has been at the forefront of the sustainable development discourse for quite some time as policymakers, industry heads and society at large have taken progressive steps to cut carbon via renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures. Unfortunately, some of these methods have given rise to perverse socio-environmental effects; as materials have been unnecessarily sacrificed, mines and wells have opened and plantations grown, in the name of energy saving. This paper contributes to clean energy-orientated policies and practices by exploring the discipline of sustainable materials. We first review two strategies: energy efficiency linked to materials; and material efficiency, meaning “doing more with less.” We find that, although both contribute significantly, they are hampered by the rebound effect and their focus on “doing less bad” rather than “good”. Furthermore, they do not in themselves evaluate the services and societal wellbeing that materials provide. We then define “material services” and propose a wider strategy that encompasses and enhances the previous two. Under the new strategy, we argue that sustainable materials should be considered as those that do no harm and which optimally, through the services provided, contribute to better sustainable development policies and practices.
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