Three Nonprofits Offer Insight into the Changing Sustainability Debate
Insulating the attic isn’t exactly what most people want to do on the weekend—yet it’s one way to save massive amounts of energy. So how do you make it appealing? This is just one of the challenges faced by nonprofit groups that are catalyzing the move to sustainability. These organizations are creating innovative campaigns, developing guidelines, and doing the essential R&D that corporations, governments, and individuals are using to adopt more sustainable practices. Here, the leaders of three nonprofits offer insights about design’s role in the shift.
Sustainable Packaging Coalition, GreenBlue
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is a project of GreenBlue—what’s your focus?
There are a lot of common problems that companies face with sustainability issues, and what GreenBlue does through this project is try to work with companies to address those.
Tell me about some of the more interesting design innovations you’re seeing.
You’re seeing a lot more focus on the interaction between product and packaging. In the past, packaging has always been the throw-on: You make a product and then you throw the package on it. There’s been some real thoughtful work on looking at the intersection between those two things. In the last five years, companies have been looking at concentration of product, and if you can deliver more product in a smaller package.
On the flipside, you see some other stuff that is not very intuitive. Food has a really significant environmental footprint if it spoils or is thrown away. So packaging is something that actually plays a very important role in not only maintaining the product but also potentially extending the valuable service life of it. The benefit may not come in the form of lighter packaging or more recycled packaging. But it may come in that we throw out less food.
Your view of “design” is very expansive—can you discuss this?
I think when we say “design,” we fall back to a mental model that thinks of design as the milieu of “designers,” guys in black turtlenecks making really cool things—whether it’s architects or industrial designers. I think we have to get out of the mindset of “designer,” and we need to think about what design means. Anybody who makes an influential decision that has a cascading influence on how we make things or how we do things is functioning as a designer. A decision to build a manufacturing plant is very influential, because it will have ramifications for the life of that plant. A huge amount of the environmental footprint of packaging and products is determined in their manufacture.
What are some of the key misconceptions relating to sustainability and design?
I think there’s a broad misconception that because something’s renewable, it is therefore sustainable. And we know that’s just not the case. Just because something is made from a tree or from corn doesn’t mean it’s necessarily sustainable. Sustainability means that we do not harvest something in excess of the ability of the underlying ecosystem or natural system to regenerate it. We know if we cut forests down faster than they can grow, we don’t have a sustainable forest at the end of the day. So because a tree is renewable doesn’t mean the tree is sustainable.
How does the Design Council work?
The Design Council is a partly government-funded agency that promotes the use of design in U.K. industry as well as public services. Increasingly, we work on big, systemic challenges that require us to bring together a broad cross-section of stakeholders from local and national government, commercial players, charities, and other areas. And we say to them, “Look—this is a challenge that all of us have got to work on together. How can we address this through design?”
The challenges as far as global warming and sustainability seem pretty daunting. Do you have a sense of optimism?
I think the design perspective is always one of optimism. While activists like Al Gore, Greenpeace, or whoever, might use a sort of “doom and gloom” approach to scare us into doing something, the designer might come in and say, “My particular contribution is one of inspiration—how can we turn this huge challenge into something that feels more like a life I can imagine wanting to live? How can we even make it seem fun or engaging? What are the opportunities in this?”
The Design Council is working on a project to encourage homeowners to insulate their homes to save energy. There’s something really fascinating, for me, about insulating your home, because it is boring but important. Too often, homeowners will splurge on a solar panel. And so how do you bring alive something as tedious and unlovely as insulating your attic or your walls or your floor? That for me is a great design challenge—to try and tackle something that’s so invisible and unsexy. How do you make people care about it?
What are key misconceptions about sustainability?
For me, a misconception about sustainability is when you assume that all you have to do is apply this well-known algorithm of resource reduction to whatever business you’re in, and you’re done. That’s not to say that everyone shouldn’t reduce the light, heat, paper, water, or whatever they use in their business, but that’s missing the opportunity for the bigger picture. The greater opportunity is to ask, “How can my discipline—whatever it is—help change the world in which we live for the better?” If I’m an engineer, how can I work on clean tech? If I’m a financier, how might I explore carbon trading? Designers too often see sustainability as something driven by the sustainability police—a bunch of rules that I have to conform to that will constrain my creativity—as opposed to the spark, an opportunity, a catalyst, to use my creativity for much greater gain.
Can you describe the key programs of The Institute for Sustainable Communication?
The Institute’s mission is to raise awareness and build capacity for the sustainable use of print and digital media. We have outreach programs that raise awareness, and then we have other programs to help educate and inform influencers and decisionmakers about some of the key competencies and core disciplines as well as the tools, metrics, and standards that enable sustainable communication. And we do some deeper service consulting, not with the intention of creating a consulting firm, but as a way to help catalyze or kick-start initiatives in companies where there is no sustainability “best practice.” Most of our work has been focused on the identification or the creation of first instances.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working on sustainability initiatives at a nonprofit?
The advantage tends to be that we’re able to engage in dialogue with corporations that in some cases a for-profit entity isn’t considered for. It does open some doors. The disadvantage is—those aren’t always the right doors. There are people who will take the meeting, but the question is do those people have budgets, do those people have authority, do those people have influence to effect change in the mainstream? And all too often the answer is “no.” But they’re willing to listen, they’re willing to entertain you, and in some cases they will try to connect you with someone in a government agency or a for-profit entity that has a business need you can help them solve.
On the question of print versus digital media—which is better?
We encourage an informed dialogue exploring what I call the false dilemmas and hidden opportunities associated with this conundrum. Because all too often designers and others are presented with a forced choice. Either you eliminate your use of paper, or you should feel like a guilty hypocrite because you’re destroying the environment and killing trees. And so we’re basically challenging that by saying, “Well, what if that warning’s wrong? What if digital media is potentially more destructive to the environment than print media? And to what degree is our growing reliance on information technology and digital media truly sustainable?”
You’ve emphasized the importance of people working together to address some of these problems. Why is group effort so essential?
Some of these problems are so big, so incredibly complex, that they can only ever be addressed by groups. And it helps if the members of the group have knowledge or experience themselves that they can bring to the endeavor. The important thing is to recognize that small things can add up but they don’t really multiply. For truly geometric order-of-magnitude change, you have to move beyond doing things yourself to doing things with others with the intent to have a multiplier effect.
What is a key misconception about sustainability?
It’s this idea that somehow, there’s design, and then there’s sustainability, and they’re two different things. But one of the core competencies of sustainability is systems thinking, which involves a consideration of all of the stakeholders impacted by the design decisions that you make. I don’t see them as antithetical in any way. I see them as really one and the same, and, in many ways, I think sustainability is the new IQ test for designers.