EnvironDesign ®7: Sustainability in Action

June 1, 2003
Penny Bonda, FASID

One might think that by its seventh year EnvironDesign would become more or less predictable, but like the environmental movement itself, change is constant. Some things remain the same: passionate attendees; a provocative assemblage of keynote and worksh

One might think that by its seventh year EnvironDesign would become more or less predictable, but mirroring perhaps the environmental movement itself, change is proving to be constant. Some things about the conference happily remain the same: passionate attendees eager to share and learn; an eclectic assemblage of keynote and workshop speakers delivering in-depth knowledge and valuable wisdom; a resource-laden Product Learning Center plus provocative pre- and post-conference seminars and tours.However, each year both current events and the conference venue stamp EnvironDesign with its own signature. Recent global circumstances coupled with the Washington, DC location, both contributed to a thoughtful and serious—but ultimately hopeful—tone as demonstrated by the sustainable mobility sector. The big-five auto makers—General Motors, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Honda and Toyota—were there, some with their environmentally friendly vehicles on display in the Product Learning Center. GM's HyWire created the biggest buzz with its space-age like aesthetic. First introduced at the Paris Auto Show, the HyWire is the world's first drivable vehicle that combines a hydrogen fuel cell with by-wire technology. Hybrid and electric vehicles, which are gaining popularity as they become more accessible, were available to attendees for a Friday afternoon Ride-and-Drive to experience first-hand these eco-advanced vehicles. Attendees' consensus about this enhancement to the event: it definitely added an eye-opening perspective and a new layer of fun!Automobiles are becoming an increasingly larger presence at EnvironDesign as the conference seeks to explore the transformation of the design of everything toward sustainable principles. Two men, an architect and a chemist, each presented keynote speeches addressing their progress and the challenges ahead in generating a closed-loop materials model—not just for the buildings industry, but in all things. Both have become closely identified with EnvironDesign as each year they present new concepts and strategies for emulating nature and eliminating the concept of waste—true cradle-to-cradle thinking.Michael Braungart, the chemist and a co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry introduced Intelligent Materials Pooling, a nutrient management method and a strategy for businesses, or simply put: how to make things differently. It's not enough, Braungart said, to say something is "free-of"—products are to be analyzed for what they contain. Calling children's toys examples of "weapons of mass destruction," he warned parents that in some products off-gassing is worse than that found at a gasoline station and further labeled them dangerous endocrine disrupters by virtue of the chemicals they contain. Another example of pervasive chemical contamination can be found by testing mother's milk, anywhere in the world, and finding that none is safe to be sold as drinking milk.These conditions have been caused by the old linear system of cradle to grave thinking where efficiency—being less bad—is the goal. Cleverly using fast food as a model of efficiency and Van Gogh and Beethoven as examples of inefficiency, Braungart made clear that reducing an environmental footprint through efficiency is not as desirable as creating a large footprint through effectiveness—doing the right things. His firm has been working in partnership with its clients to design positive systems. Unilever, for example, has come up with ice-cream packaging that not only is biodegradable but, because it contains plant seeds, actually becomes a nutrient. Users are encouraged to "please litter!" Intelligent materials pooling involves generating lists of preferred substances, eliminating waste and enabling companies to become material banks. It also forms the basis of the McDonough Braungart design philosophy and has given rise to their non-profit enterprise, the Green Blue Institute. Braungart's partner, architect Bill McDonough, discussed in his presentation how this new venture will explore the social, economic and environmental changes in the design of buildings, materials, products such as hearing aids, communities, energy, transportation and communication systems—in short, the design of everything. The questions become, McDonough poses, "What do we do and what is our legacy?" He suggests strategies for designing systems that are self-healing, where no regulations are needed because no harm is being done. Using real-world examples of extraordinary solutions from the not-for-profits, he believes that we can produce a new take on economics: a model that measures legacy rather than activity, where industry sees a world not of limits but of possibilities. "We need," he says, "intelligent synthetic materials that are designed to be in an open system of chemicals powered by a free form of energy in continuous use. Our desire and goal is simple: a healthy, delightful world shared in abundance with everyone fairly in a place where our children's, children's, children's, children's, children's, children's, children can celebrate our creativity and our new form of capitalism, where the question is not how much can I get for all I give, but rather how much can I give for all that I get?"McDonough and Braungart's work is arguably the most forward-thinking in the environmental world today and their keynote presentations are always provocative. One attendee told us, "Michael and Bill's speaking was among the most powerful I've ever witnessed. Their ideas, while courageous and mind-expanding, were explained and discussed in understandable pieces. That's genius. That's mankind's foundation of evolution."The conference began on a worrisome note. The scheduled opening keynote speaker, Janine Benyus became seriously ill and was under doctor's orders not to travel. (Happily her condition is no longer considered acute and EnvironDesign looks forward to welcoming her back to the podium next year—and beyond!). Renowned environmentalist and Benyus' good friend Hunter Lovins stepped in to jump start EnvironDesign7 with her well-known straightforwardness. As a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of nine books as well as being named a Hero of the Planet by Time magazine, Lovins spoke with a profound authority when she opened by saying that we—humans—must re-design our relationship with the whole world because there is no longer any doubt that every major eco-system is endangered. Recounting many of the features of the natural capitalism movement, with which she's been closely affiliated, Lovins reminded us of our economy's failure to place the proper value on ecosystem services—things such as climate regulation, habitat diversity, air and water purification and temperature modulation—calculated by some to be worth $30 trillion per year to our economy. In a talk rich with examples of how the planet is in decline as a result of the first industrial revolution, Lovins offered remedies through a design challenge that embraces the core principles of natural capitalism: efficiency, biomimicry and restoration. The answers are to be found in a design strategy that integrates energy, economics and community, such as the hydrogen-powered cars currently being developed and likely to become commonplace within a decade. However, in order to be successful the transition to a hydrogen economy must be designed, using different mind-sets and metrics. Successful businesses will take their values from their customers, their designs from nature and their discipline from the marketplace. Lovins cautioned that one-half of the 1985 Fortune 500 companies are now out of business—a warning to those who are reluctant to change. Ultimately, she concluded, it is up to use to find solutions that insure no net loss of human or natural capital.Convening an environmental conference in Washington, DC, dictated the presence of a nationally recognized eco-activist. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), identified by the Sierra Club as the Senate's strongest environmental advocate, was an obvious choice. He has consistently recognized that a healthy environment is fundamental to our nation's quality of life and economic security. While applauding the visionary pioneers in the audience, he labeled the current U.S. Senate as "nearly dysfunctional" for its inability to move the nation forward in solving our environmental problems such as oil dependence, down-stream pollution, air quality, waste and global warming. Politics, he said, should be the "art of the possible," rather than constantly trying to fix the things we've done wrong in the past. A true tax cut, one that would ultimately save the country billions of dollars and rejuvenate our economy, would put policies in place that don't require us to repair decades of damage, but would offer America different choices. Kerry suggested two fundamental changes: government's methods of addressing these choices and the way in which citizens approach government. It is the job of leaders, he said, to provide the marketplace incentives that will transition the country to energy sources that are clean, abundant and reliable—things such as subsidies, tax credits, partnerships with industry and joint ventures with universities—that will move us rapidly toward true national security. Citizens, Kerry reminded the audience, have created a "felt need" in the past on issues such as civil rights, voting rights, the clean air and clean water acts and the formation of the EPA, and can do so again by becoming vested in holding politicians accountable. One hundred million dollars or more is spent in Washington each month by special interest lobbyists to influence government decisions, but it is the citizens who must re-engage and reclaim our own democracy by making cleaner air, better fuel economy and other environmental concerns a voting issue. Reconnecting to the possibilities, to dare and reach, be tough and courageous, thoughtful and compassionate is the responsibility of voters and politicians alike. This, said Kerry, will enable us to avoid becoming the first generation in history to leave the country in worse shape than we found it.Another group of speakers, Bill Browning of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Winona LaDuke, an internationally renowned Native American Indian activist and advocate for environmental, women's and children's rights, and Bob Massie, the former executive director of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) examined global environmental challenges from three very different perspectives. LaDuke spoke of such things as biodiversity, colonialism and its effects on communities, deforestation and excess energy consumption as they have affected indigenous peoples. Like Michael Braungart, she spoke of the contamination of mother's breast milk from persistent organic compounds by quoting from a Native American teaching which says, "In each deliberation, one should consider the impact upon the seventh generation from now." That is perhaps a teaching we could all learn from.Browning spoke of the work he's doing in China, a country with extraordinary environmental problems, and how the Chinese government is using the opportunity of hosting the Olympics to do something about it. He also joined the others in recognizing the Internet as a place for the empowerment of people from some of the poorer countries who haven't had a voice before. Massie spoke of the Global Reporting Initiative, a program begun by CERES almost 15 years ago to try to urge companies and other organizations to disclose their environmental impacts. There is an implicit theory that if you could get an organization, a company, to set a goal and measure and disclose its progress against that goal, you could create both an internal and external pressure dynamic for change. He also announced an upcoming CERES-sponsored state comptroller/treasurer and investor summit on climate risk and its impact on shareholder value, which should also trigger enormous changes in the investment world.EnvironDesign7 ended with a presentation from a different point of view. Edward O. Wilson, considered by some to be the world's greatest living scientist, is a biologist and entomologist and spoke to the audience from his unique perspective. He has made enormous contributions to the field of conservation, starting with his discovery of a new species at the age of 13! Protecting our planet's biodiversity has become the life's work of this two-time Pulitzer prize-winner. The biosphere, he stated, is far richer in diversity than we can imagine and much of his presentation took the audience on a journey through the vast and complex unknown parts of this planet where the vast majority of species, many of them yet to be discovered, exist. They are being eroded by human activity at an accelerated rate. This loss will exact a heavy price in health, security and spirit. Future generations will ask why, by needlessly extinguishing the lives of other species, did we diminish theirs. This is the folly, Wilson warns, for which our descendants will least likely forgive us.Wilson believes the 21st century will be the century of the environment in which we will turn things around. However we are currently stuck in a bottleneck caused, in part, by the income differential between the rich and the poor and by the acceleration of the destruction of the natural environment and the mass extinction of the world's eco-systems and species. Especially poignant were the images that he presented in his slide show of species that are already gone and those which are in his Hundred Heartbeat Club - with less than 100 individuals remaining.Today's new technologies and the work of the not-for-profits, Wilson thinks, will be the means by which we will find the solutions. He ended with well-founded hope that the global conservation movement will form the spearheads that governments will follow "to save the integrity of this magnificent planet and the life it harbors because, darn it, it's the right thing to do!"While the keynote speakers offered up the larger issues, the 34 workshops zeroed in on the specifics of how to achieve a greener environment. Many focused on products, how to identify and specify them with examples provided by case studies from private industry and the federal sector. Others focused on energy, green mobility, technology solutions, organizational sustainability—in short, the gamut of thinking in this growing and ever more complicated subject area. As one attendee put it, "What an extremely wonderful, human and inspiring group of folks, very inspirational."A unique and special edition to EnvironDesign 7, Trash to Treasure, was a resounding success and is likely to become a standing feature of future conferences. Twenty-three entrants pulled stuff out of the waste stream and turned it into something of value. These "works of art" were on display in the Product Learning Center and then auctioned off. The proceeds, more than $1,000, were donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help its mission to "Save the Bay." In addition, EnvironDesign7 was further enhanced by the generous contributions of scholarships from some of our most loyal supporters. Twenty-five students, those individuals who will be the stewards of our future, were able to attend and fully participate in the conference. Look for photographs and more information on both of these programs in the July/August issue of IS.EnvironDesign7 will be a tough act to follow, but the planning is underway for EnvironDesign8, to be held April 21 to 23, 2004, in Minneapolis, MN. The Twin Cities community has already begun engaging influential leaders from the private and public sector to assist in providing the provocative, stimulating and knowledge-based program that has become the hallmark of each EnvironDesign conference. EnvironDesign is co-sponsored by IS (www.isdesignet.com) and green@work (www.greenatworkmag.com) magazines. Additional information on EnvironDesign7 and an order form for tapes of all the keynote speeches and workshop sessions are available at www.environdesign.com.

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