Last week in San Francisco was the Greener by Design conference, which we've already noted was well-covered by Reuters. But if you want the short version, here are some personal notes.
Greener by Design 2009 was actually the best conference I've been to in a while. Not so much because of the speakers or format--though they were definitely great--but because of the conversations with other people between talks. How does that happen? Maybe it was just coincidence; it was a standard-format gig, not an unconference like foo camp. Maybe it was that Joel Makower did a good job of getting interesting people to attend, and had decent-length breaks between sessions. In any case, it was well worth the time. Here are a few notes from the event.William McDonough was the keynote; while he didn't say anything particularly new, it was good to see him in person, since he's so much in demand these days--the biggest single name in sustainability. There was a pre-conference workshop on Cradle to Cradle by EDG; it just covered the basics of it, but a couple people from MBDC were on hand to answer questions. Most of it was an exercise in EDG's innovation methodology, with standard brainstorming but then a more structured form of giving feedback, that encourages people to have more substance to their comments rather than just "like it" or "don't like it." Interestingly, the structure of the feedback session also does not allow the idea-presenters to respond to the feedback in the session, so that instead of being able to argue their points, the answers have to come out in the next iteration of the design. Later in the conference, Amnon Levav from SIT International also had some fun innovation techniques that he worked the audience through, tools that make creativity and innovation more of a science.
Both Sustainable Minds and Greenfly were there, the only two LCA software companies whose tools are pleasant and easy to use, rather than a foray through 1990's engineering-tool clunkery. They're the next generation of LCA tools, and it's the first time I've seen both at the same conference; hopefully the rest of the industry will follow them into making analysis tools that "normal" designers can use.
The company with perhaps the most tangible green innovations described at the conference was Method. First, Adam Lowry described how the laundry detergent market hadnâ€™t changed in 50 years, but after their introduction of extra-concentrated liquids a few years ago, it's changed the industry to the point where now you literally canâ€™t get non-concentrated detergents at Target or Walmart. Another example he mentioned was that they did an LCA of plastic bag packaging vs. a recycled plastic bottle (they're leaders in using 100% recycled PET for many of their bottles), and found that virgin plastic bags were better, not necessarily an obvious conclusion. So they invented recycled & recyclable bags. The only trouble so far is that most recycling centers just think they're potato chip bags and don't recycle them (currently no bags like that are recycled, at least not in the US). Taking the initiative a step further, Method sent samples of the bags to many big municipal recyclers to explain their recyclability. It's unclear how effective that has been so far, but in time hopefully it will be another industry-wide shift. On a related note, Tony Knoerzer of Frito-Lay described how they are working their way towards making their Sun Chips bags entirely out of PLA so they can be composted instead of landfilled. He even said the bags will be compostable in your own back yard, something that's not true of PLA bottles; presumably the difference is that the thinness of the bags allows for faster breakdown.
Sam Lucente and Uri Kogan of HP each talked about green innovations they've been playing with. They've done some very creative things with packaging (such as using a laptop bag instead of a box), although I'd like to see them apply their creativity to reducing bigger impacts, like lifetime energy use or circuit board size. At least in the laptop market, these factors are already desirable for performance and form factor, so it's harder to stand out from the competition, but as the OLPC showed, it can be done. Even better would be to see laptop market improvements rolled out as standard on desktop markets as well. Still, as Uri pointed out, it helps build customer awareness of sustainability, and hopefully acts as design practice for larger-impact changes.
Adventure Ecology founder David de Rothschild talked about Plastiki, his fun publicity stunt to make people rethink waste by sailing across the Pacific on a boat made out of used plastic bottles; it's a more swashbuckling version of other projects we've seen like the casa de botellas in Argentina. Amusingly, he said the thing that impresses people the most about the boat is not the engineering it took to design and build the thing, but the fact that they have a garden on board.
Many other folks spoke as well; Packaging guru Wendy Jedlicka talked about systems-thinking and made mention of her new book Packaging Sustainability; Intel made a cash register that uses 70% less energy than a standard one; Angela Nahikian of Steelcase, one of the industry leaders, described some of their initiatives in "radical innovation"; Susan Gladwin from the California Cleantech Open, Ted Howes of IDEO, and Mark Aggar of Microsoft talked about energy efficiency; plus many more. One novel thing the conference organizers did that I appreciated was to bring in a slew of small entrepreneurs to present their companies and/or products in just a few minutes each, one after another. I'm sure some of these are companies we'll be hearing more about in the future: EcoLogic, Trula, Re-Tread Products, Rapioli, GreenHeart, GreenOps, and more.