Five years ago, if you’d asked a stranger to tell you the significance of April 22, you’d almost certainly have been met with a blank stare. The same would likely have been true four, three, even two years ago. But last year, Earth Day finally had its moment on the main stage. Nearly forty years after its founding, it broke out of do-good environmentalist circles and debuted across the glossy covers of Vanity Fair and Vogue. By the end of 2006, it was agreed that this was the year green went mainstream. All of us — and most likely all of you — felt very gratified by this. At Inhabitat, we spent the year furiously trying to keep apace with the incredible acceleration and growth of sustainable design. And here we are one year later, with hipsters and style mavens unabashedly voicing cries for the environment that once would only have escaped the lips of hippies. This is in part because they can now raise their voices dressed in [organic] designer jeans, lying on a [cork] modern chaise lounge, sipping [fair trade, shade grown, organic] coffee. Dressing the part has a totally different meaning now.
And Earth Day has a whole new look. It’s joined the ranks of consumerist holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween; the products lining store shelves suddenly all turn green in April, the way they turn red in February and orange in October. (Has Snickers made a special Earth Day wrapper yet?)
Last week I collaborated in writing a fairly strong statement against the occasion, precisely because of the consumer-oriented evolution it’s undergone. Not that we shouldn’t celebrate our accomplishments, but we’re in a perilous planetary situation, and we have a long way to go. In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman put a fine point on it:
“The dirty little secret is that we’re fooling ourselves,” he said, “We in America talk like we’re already ‘the greenest generation’…But here’s the bad news: While green has hit Main street…it certainly has not gone anywhere near the distance required to preserve our lifestyle.”
The implicit acknowledgment in Friedman’s point, however, is that we all want to preserve our current lifestyles. It’s a rare 21st century “green” who volunteers to give away all of her possessions and swear never again to drink from a can or drive a car. This is why design is fundamental to achieving sustainability. Until we can design sustainably, we cannot consume responsibly.
At Inhabitat, we look for those advancements and innovations that aim to maintain (or gently shift) the lifestyle we all enjoy, while addressing sustainability. This Earth Day, those of us in the design community — whether designers, marketers, consumers, or journalists — might consider what our responsibilities are to uphold the integrity of sustainable design as it gets distributed — and, frankly, diluted — in the market. (Do you want to spend $14 on a reusable sleeve for your disposable paper coffee cup, or do you want to just forego the sleeve? And for that matter, the cup…)
Here are a few simple thoughts to take with us on Earth Day:
Designers: Embrace Cradle to Cradle design and perform life cycle assessments to help transform manufacturing towards using no finite resources, generating no waste, and emitting no CO2 or other harmful pollutants.
Marketers: Be authentic. Sustainability equals profitability, but deceptive marketing equals greenwashing. There’s tremendous power in the communications campaigns around sustainability — most people are still learning what it is, and an authentic campaign can teach volumes.
Consumers: Every product has a history and a future. If its history can be told as variations on a fossil fuel theme, and its future as one long swan song in a landfill, it hardly matters what happens in the brief interlude during which you own it. Try to learn as much as you can about the whole story of the things you buy.
Journalists: In the age of the internet, many of us have public voices that would never previously have had the reach and impact they now do via the Web. Those of us using our voices to promote sustainability have to scrutinize the things we promote, learn about their life cycles, pay attention to their marketing campaigns, and know that consumers listen to the media for guidance.
The good news for all of us is that if we keep our momentum as high as our ideals, the problems we face — though monumental — have attainable solutions. As Friedman said, “No one knows exactly what will happen. But ever fewer people want to do nothing.”
Image 1: Oryx in Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia (Discovery)
Image 2: Rio Negro Confluence, Brazil (NASA Earth Observatory)
Image 3: Mining and Agriculture, Kazakhstan (NASA Earth Observatory)
Image 4: (Cory Kohn)