This past Thursday, May 7th, the Designers Accord brought adopters and design community members together for a third installment of the newly formed Town Hall meetings, hosted by LUNAR in their San Francisco studio. With the purpose of providing a forum for members to meet locally and discuss what it means to be active in socially and environmentally responsible ways within the creative community, these meetings have been gaining momentum over the past few months as designers, educators, business leaders, and students come together to participate in the sustainability dialogue.
Thursday's discussion was bright with inspirational thoughts and aspirational "what ifs" as the group of 27 attendees and five presenters, with five minutes each, dove right into ideas surrounding everything from material selection to the roles of certification to how game theory might be employed to modify human behavior for the good of the planet and the people on it.After the first half hour of meeting, greeting and wine and cheese, LUNAR president John Edson opened the evening with a hearty welcome and a quick confession: "We became Designers Accord adopters, well, a long time ago. And you know what? There's some hard stuff in there that we've agreed to do. But we're doing our best." In fact, LUNAR has reduced their trash output over 50% since implementing a composting system and gotten rid of delivered bottled water, replacing it with an in-line filte. LUNAR's internal group, Elements, meets on a regular basis to talk about what the company is doing to reduce their carbon footprint, as well as figuring out how to work with clients and become the voice for sustainability on projects. And as he segued into the presentation portion, John proposed that the group move out of the theoretical and into the real successes that we've had, whether it is convincing a client to go green, a new material we've discovered, or a LCA tool that's facilitating the process.
Lynda Grose bravely kicked off the presentations with a discussion on the clean cotton movement. As a fashion designer, Lynda got involved in sustainability in the early 90's as part a co-founder of ESPRIT's ecollection line. Since then she has been working freelance with a focus on sustainability in textiles and fashion. In addition to being a faculty member at CCA, she has for a been working with the Sustainable Cotton Project which operates in California to help farmers reduce chemical use and to take corporations (Nike, Patagonia, Levis, North Face) on farm tours, educating them on the use of cleaner cotton. She brought up the poignant fact that because California has such comparatively high minimum wage rates (a good thing in itself, of course), organic cotton's labor-intensive growing process makes it far too expensive to cultivate in California. She offered a call to action for the attendees: become a part of the movement, get clients on board with clean cotton and to get in contact with the group to go on one of the farm tours.
Alan Wells, a designer for social gaming company Zynga, proposed that there's a lot we can learn about how the mechanics that drive video game users to behave in a certain way can also be applied to changing consumer behavior with regard to sustainability. Social gaming uses three basic attributes to tap into our behaviors and change our motivations: cooperation, comparison, and competition. What can we learn from social games that might be applied to other areas, such as conserving energy at home, for example? Could you turn your PG&E bill into something that motivates people to compete to reduce their energy consumption? Can you use these models to manipulate behavior? It was an interesting point since, as Alan concluded, "we can't depend on altruism."
And on that note, Nathan Shedroff took the floor and reminded us all that sustainability is not just about the environmental issues, but also the social and financial issues. In his Design MBA program at CCA, he teaches his students that design, sustainability, and business are tightly interrelated. The more you dive in, the more you can't have one without the other. Quoting L. Hunter Lovins, co-auther of Natural Capitalism, Nathan puts forth that "in a stable economy, sustainability is the competitive strategy. In a down economy, it's the turnaround strategy. In the collapse, sustainability is the survival strategy." And now that we are experiencing that collapse, it's time to produce new and better economic models which, according to Nathan, is a challenge fit to be tackled by designers.
Daniell Hebert of Moto Development Group took it from there with a presentation on the methodologies they are using to evaluate designs early in the process in terms of their environmental impacts, with a focus on consumer electronics and their ecosystems. In evolving this service they have learned a great deal about the considerations that come up at different stages in the development process. And on their road to getting projects that involve making a more sustainable project, they are concentrating their efforts on two tenets: 1) Communicate with the customer. They've been working with LCA tools (such as Okala) that are incredibly useful in finding and evaluating new materials. But the usefulness can be vague when you're in the conceptual phase of a project. 2) What are we doing inside our team? They make a point to ask "what's the focus of this product?" Daniell provided the group with this insight: Commodities these days are under a lot of pressure to cut costs, and this often comes down to the materials so you really have to look for opportunities. It's a big investment, but it's a process with a big payoff.
To close the round of presentations, Jess Sand hopped to the stage with some thoughts on certification systems. A writer and designer at communication studio Roughstock, Jess has been recently tapped by several groups to develop various sustainable design certification systems, which she is self-admittedly on the fence about as a personal philosophy. Currently she is working with the San Francisco Green Business Program to create just such a certification system for San Francisco businesses that focuses on environmental conservation. She ended with some food-for-thought for the group: Is certification worthwhile? Is it possible to create a system that objectively quantifies and rates whether a project is sustainable? If so, what are those measures?
As everyone grabbed another beer and refilled their cheese plate, John invited the presenters to come back to the front for an informal panel discussion. It was obvious from the conversation that everyone in attendance is dealing with the same complexities and unintended consequences (communication tools being misapplied, for example). People latched on to Alan's idea that gaming structures can be useful in changing group behavior, but how do you present the information to have that influence? He pointed out that it is all about enabling communication, and the rest takes care of itself.
The topic of LEED carried some weight in the group. While it is admirable that it's changing behavior in the business world and getting people on the right track, there's still some ironing out to be done. Nathan emphasizes the importance of good faith; trying is the first thing and should be credited. Jumping off of that, Daniell emphasized that some basic principles are often missed: start in the place where you can make the biggest difference today. A product's material volume is a good thing to consider, for example. Cutting down on the volume of material used can have an enormous effect.
And try as we might, keeping conversations about sustainable design grounded and practicable is an elusive enterprise. As most dialogs about the subject, Thursday's Town Hall floated up into the ether culminating in the final question of the evening: "Yes, but what are we trying to sustain?"