Category Archives: Environment

animal cruelty and the food supply

There are a lot of reasons to eat less meat, including personal health, the impact on climate change, and other environmental impacts, including pesticides and waste in rivers and waste in the water table.

And then there’s the issue of factory farms in general, and the question of how to assure that giant meat producers follow standards of quality and ethics. Large corporations, with a focus on the bottom line, place tremendous pressure on their employees to engage in unsafe and unethical practices. These bring out other concerns, including broader health concerns and the treatment of animals.

Today, the USDA announced the recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced by Westlake/Hallmark, based on the evidence presented in the following video, produced by an undercover reporter for the Humane Society of the United States. Before you watch it, you should know this video is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a very long time.

In this facility, cattle who cannot stand on their own are lifted, rolled and speared by forklifts. Another has water shot into its nostrils to simulate drowning (cattle waterboarding, I suppose), and others are beaten in a routine and horrifying way. All in order to get sick cattle passed by the inspectors so they can be put into our food supply.

Unfortunately, most of the meat produced at this facility has already been eaten, and much of it (perhaps 37 million pounds) by children through school lunch programs. Two employees have been fired and charged with animal cruelty, but there are clearly deeply entrenched problems within this industry that aren’t addressed by punishing a couple of workers on the line. All in all, a deeply disturbing episode.

The end of consumer culture?

Should designers work toward the end of aspirational consumer culture? Can the design industry, broadly defined, reposition and reinvent itself to provide value and sustainability while still creating desire?

When I was at Northwestern, I took some classes from a Professor of Philosophy, David Michael Levin, who once asked us whether having a choice was important in our lives. Specifically, he was asking about the difference between choice and the appearance of choice. For instance, he asked, is it important to be able to choose between Crest and Colgate?

I think of Professor Levin from time to time, and often when I’m walking down the personal care aisle of the supermarket. Looking at all the variations of toothpaste and related products (Whitestrips, anyone?), I wonder whether it’s possible that our society in general may have gone just a bit too far, and that the designers and product managers and marketers are spending too much of their creative resources on selling products with limited value and without any real differentiation.

I’m not arguing that there isn’t valuable product innovation going on, but I tend to doubt the big change involves one of the 50 swirly paste/gel combos on every American supermarket aisle. Think of the improved efficiencies we’ll see just as soon as all the rest of you realize that Tom’s of Maine Peppermint is plenty good enough for everyone.

Innovation, or Variation?

Okay, that’s probably not going to be happening any time soon. And, if there were only one kind of toothpaste, I’d likely never gotten the chance to try out Tom’s products, or the cool toothpaste that combines gel, paste, and some crazy sparkly bits. I do love the crazy sparkly bits.

I’m not recommending some sort of centralized control of the means of production; it wouldn’t work anyhow, not in the fast moving consumer goods market, and certainly not in the broader markets. But there’s still something decadent and even unethical about the way we sell the aspirational in consumer goods.

Of course, if people didn’t want it, we wouldn’t sell it, and the invisible hand of the market will ultimately level everything out, right? Well, maybe.

The toothpaste reference is pretty trivial, but it points to a bigger question about designer culture. Designer culture is still about the aspirational, and it’s well established in mainstream markets.

Rob Horning wrote an article on Pop Matters called The Design Imperative. In it, he considers both the historical underpinnings and the current nature of our consumer culture. Historically,

the consumer revolution depended on the sudden availability of things, which allowed ordinary people to buy ready-made objects that once were inherited or self-produced.

and in our current world,

We are consigned to communicating through design, but it’s an impoverished language that can only say one thing: “That’s cool.” Design ceases to serve our needs, and the superficial qualities of useful things end up cannibalizing their functionality.

The problem ultimately is that all this consumption fills some sort of void in our lives, at least temporarily. And by feeding the void in our lives, designers are providing the stimulus that keeps the modern economy moving.

It’s the economy, stupid

According to the news reports I’ve been reading, the economy of the United States has a pretty good chance of heading into a recession for most if not all of 2008. One of the primary causes, resulting in part from the rocking of the financial markets due to sub-prime lending, is decreased consumer spending. Consumer spending, which accounts for two thirds of economic activity, weakened in the month of December.

But for those of us who would like to see a decrease in consumption, is this necessarily bad news?

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, I remember being slightly horrified by Bush the 43rd admonishing the people of America to ‘go shopping’ to fight back against terrorism. Of course, there was an important idea in there somewhere, that we shouldn’t allow our lives to be controlled by a few fundamentalist wackos. But I found it hard to believe that a trip to wal-mart was the best way to fight back against Osama bin Laden. It’s a long way from the Victory Gardens our grandparents planted to help win World War II.

I was thinking about this when I came across an excellent article by Madeleine Bunting, published in the Guardian, called “Eat, drink and be miserable: the true cost of our addiction to shopping”.

As Ms. Bunting points out:

We have a political system built on economic growth as measured by gross domestic product, and that is driven by ever-rising consumer spending. Economic growth is needed to service public debt and pay for the welfare state. If people stopped shopping, the economy would ultimately collapse. No wonder, then, that one of the politicians’ tasks after a terrorist outrage is to reassure the public and urge them to keep shopping (as both George Bush and Ken Livingstone did). Advertising and marketing, huge sectors of the economy, are entirely devoted to ensuring that we keep shopping and that our children follow in our footsteps.

The question that I have been wrestling with regarding this question is how we can both decrease our rampant disposable consumerism while still continuing to have a reasonably robust economy. How am I supposed to continue pushing the economy forward while cutting my carbon footprint by 60 percent?

Happy Now?

In her article, Ms. Bunting discusses the work of Tim Kasser, an American Psychologist concerned with materialism, values, and goals. Kasser has created an aspirational index which helps to distinguish between two types of goals:

Extrinsic, materialistic goals (e.g., financial success, image, popularity) are those focused on attaining rewards and praise, and are usually means to some other end. Intrinsic goals (e.g., personal growth, affiliation, community feeling) are, in contrast, more focused on pursuits that are supportive of intrinsic need satisfaction.

According to Kasser, he would like to “help individuals and society move away from materialism & consumerism and towards more intrinsically satisfying pursuits that promote personal well-being, social justice, and ecological sustainability.”

Personally, I’m not quite sure where I fall on the Aspirational Index.

I try to be mindful of what I’m consuming, where it comes from, and where it ends up. Still, I have a couple pair of shoes that I bought on a whim, and a jacket I didn’t wear more than a few times. I don’t get a whole lot of joy out of going shopping, whether for clothes or anything else, but I’m sure there are many, many ways I could do more with less.

It occurs to me that there needs to be a new paradigm of consumption, one that will work for business, community, and environment. I don’t know what form this new paradigm will take, but I believe it has something to do with learning to appreciate the real value of things and their place in our world.

Designers have an opportunity to engage in this paradigm shift. Part of the story lies in creating products that have intrinsic and lasting value, products that I like to call artisanal. And part of the story lies in better communicating the value of the artisanal. I believe that designers have an ethical duty to work toward the end of disposable culture. Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen in vacuum. But it is going to happen, whether we choose to be a part of the process or not. Better to engage the future rather than have it thrust upon us.

Toward a Moral Equivalent of Consumerism

The subtitle of Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian article is “Today it seems politically unpalatable, but soon the state will have to turn to rationing to halt hyper-frantic consumerism”. She speaks to the inevitability of changing our behaviors, and believes that the change will not happen without intervention from the state. Whether it is rationing, or taxes, or other means, the change, ultimately, will have to come.

But change is never easy or simple. In The Moral Equivalent of War (1906), William James explained the difficulties of advocating pacifism:

So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way.

War, like consumer capitalism, offers a way of getting people motivated and organized. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations”, argues that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest.” Self interest is a strong motivational force, and unless and until there is a “Moral Equivalent of Consumerism” it may well be impossible to create an alternative solution.

It will likely be necessary for government to engage in rationing or taxation to decrease our impact on the environment. But there is also an important component that should not be ignored, and one that can and should be engaged in by the designers of our products and communications. A new aspiration, perhaps focused on the intrinsic and self-transcendent as Tim Kasser explains. A aspiration toward what is valuable, an experience where less is truly more.

In “The Moral Equivalent of War”, James argues that:

Great indeed is Fear; but it is not, as our military enthusiasts believe and try to make us believe, the only stimulus known for awakening the higher ranges of men’s spiritual energy.

In seeking a moral equivalent of consumerism it is our challenge to use our capabilities to awaken the higher ranges of each person’s spiritual energy, and to produce objects and communications that are filled with value.

Should designers work toward the end of aspirational consumer culture? Ultimately, I’m not sure there is any other choice.

The Designers Accord

I joined the Designers Accord this past week.

What is the Designers Accord? According to founder Valerie Casey, it “is a call to arms for the creative community to reduce the negative environmental and social effect caused by design.”

I think of it as a more modern version of the hippocratic oath for designers. It’s not just a call to arms, it’s a code of ethics, a responsibility to think through every decision you make as a designer with as much perspective as you can muster.

In fact, the first tenet of the code of conduct expressed on the site is “do no harm”. This term, derived from a core tenet of medical practice (though not, in fact, from the hippocratic oath – the term Primum non nocere has been used for the past 150 years) is essentially conservative in nature. Don’t do anything to make the situation worse. A good start, though not going far enough. The code of conduct continues:

Do no harm
Communicate and collaborate
Keep learning, keep teaching
Instigate meaningful change
Make theory action

The Designers Accord focuses primarily on environmental components, though I believe that there are social justice components implicit in the initiative as well. And it is not just designers who should consider these issues – though designers have been responsible for making more than their fair share of trash in the past. But this is a consideration for all of us in our daily lives.

In her (newly reinitiated) column on design in the New York Times yesterday, Allison Arieff says that the Designers Accord is going to be endorsed by both the American Institution of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA). She also says:

Recognizing the near impossibility of changing consumer behavior and business behavior alike, the Designers Accord asserts that these firms, which design everything from graphics and packaging to user interface to final product, are ideally suited to get the design-for-impact conversation rolling.

In some ways these are heady times for designers. Rock star architects and product designers for Target and the latest electronic gizmo. But there has to be a way to creatively engage each client, each individual, in a conversation that pushes all of us to provide more value with less impact.

Kudos to Valerie Casey for starting this initiative. Now, let’s get to work.

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants

I just read an interesting conversation between Tom Philpott (of Maverick Farms) and Michael Pollan on Grist. Pollan is best known as the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemna, and he’s been working on a new book called “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” which is due out in January.

According to Pollan, the basic argument in his new book is as follows:

The interesting thing that I learned was that if you’re really concerned about your health, the best decisions for your health turn out to be the best decisions for the farmer and the best decisions for the environment — and that there is no contradiction there.

One element I’ve always appreciated in Pollan’s writing is the lack of nostalgia and sentimentality in his approach to environmentalism. In this case, his argument is that what is best for the environment is also best for our own health and the most enjoyable way to eat.

Though it’s certainly not easy or even possible to eat locally in Colorado in the winter, it’s hard to argue with the value of unrefined, local, and fresh ingredients. There is no tomato equal to a fresh picked tomato off the vine. And if you want to live a long and healthy life, learn to love those dark green leafy vegetables.

Changing deeply-ingrained habits is no short process, and there is a strong business marketing apparatus aligned to support the status quo. I’m not naive enough to believe that the sea change is upon us. Still, it’s good to see increasing awareness of the issue, and I believe that there are enlightened leaders in the agribusiness community who will do their part to push the process forward. You can read the conversation here.

inhabitating the planet.

Inhabitat is a well-designed site that talks up ecodesign. They say that good design is green design, and green design is good design. Bully for that. Recently, inhabitat founder Jill Fehrenbacher conducted a panel with Allan Chochinov of Core 77, Susan Szenasy of Metropolis, and Graham Hill of Though the reel is a few highlights of the conversation, it touches on some valid issues and provides a framework around the problems involved in working in sustainable design.

My responses to what I saw are as follows: ultimately, I believe the imperitaves for designers in the developed world are twofold:

First, to encourage consumers to decrease their consumption; in other words, to convince all of us that we can have more fun with less stuff. The vast majority of the actions we take toward sustainability (including recycling and buying hybrid cars) are band-aid solutions, making us feel better but not really making a significant change in our carbon footprint. The potential for a bleak future is very real; a goal of decreasing consumption will only be achieved if we provide richness of experience. We are engaging in what will eventually have to be a revaluation of values (as Nietzsche called), and it will not be an easy sell. Changing consumer behavior will require real design innovation (as well as changes in our behavior as designers) from throughout the design disciplines.

But the process of engaging consumers in the change process is a cakewalk compared to the true challenge that confronts us. The Second imperative for design is to fundamentally change our relationship with our clients; this change will require us to put our whole livelihood at risk. If there is a change in the values and behaviors of the customers for our products, there will have to be a corresponding change in the values and behaviors of industry. Not just in terms of use of recycled and sustainable approaches to design, but to reevaluate and retool the entire product lifecycle. Think your clients are going to want to change their business model to sell less? They may not want to, but eventually (some day) they will have to. The question is whether the change is engaged in voluntarily, caused by outside forces, or some combination of both.

One approach to this, potentially, is to encourage the artisinal in design, where there is less consumed but what is consumed is of a higher quality (however quality is defined). But this is a long way from happening in our WalMart and McDonalds world. Even in so-called elite circles who claim to be aware of our world’s needs, there is a tendency toward preferring the appearance of the authentic over the truly authentic. Last summer I attended at the Aspen Design Summit, and the topic was social and environmental justice, but in each hotel room there was a plastic bottle of Fiji water. Apparently Aspen tap just wasn’t good enough.

In the end, the hardest change is personal change, and the toughest awareness is personal awareness. Before I can encourage others to have fun with less, I need to have fun with less. I’m gonna work on that.

Save the earth, one veggie burger at a time

Today’s Christian Science Monitor has an article entitled Humans’ beef with livestock: a warmer planet which argues that the easiest way to improve the environment is to cut back on eating meat. According to the article:

Researchers at the University of Chicago compared the global warming impact of meat eaters with that of vegetarians and found that the average American diet – including all food processing steps – results in the annual production of an extra 1.5 tons of CO2-equivalent (in the form of all greenhouse gases) compared to a no-meat diet. Researchers Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin concluded that dietary changes could make more difference than trading in a standard sedan for a more efficient hybrid car, which reduces annual CO2 emissions by roughly one ton a year.

Of course, becoming vegetarian is not the answer to addressing all our planetary issues, but this article gives credence to the importance of being aware of all our choices. Even small changes in how we use our ‘body politic’ can ultimately have a profound impact. I know a number of vegetarians don’t consider the impact of their choices. And then there are many people, vegetarian or not, who are far more aware of where their food comes from than I am.

I do believe it is important to eat locally grown food whenever possible – as the saying goes, local is the new organic. While the industrial food industry has plenty of critics, including Michael Pollan, climate change is deeply rooted in all of our actions. Whatever steps we can take as individuals to lessen our impact on the world will ultimately be greatly appreciated by those who come after us.

All is Grist for the Mill

Who says environmentalists can’t have a sense of humor? I actually look forward to getting my “weekly grist”, and not just to find out what horrors have been wrought on the world’s ecosystems. The writing hits a good tone, one that combines humor, insight, and activism.

Grist has some insightful columnists (this week’s Ask Umbra is worth a read), and they’ve done some excellent interviews in the past with people like Michael Pollan. Also, the Grist List is worth a quick view.

The site is probably best known for their punny headlines. Today’s sampling: “The Problem of the Root”, “If not Nau, when?”, “Capsize Does Matter”, and “Energizer Money”. Sure, Mr. Johnson, the pun may be the lowest form of humour, but Grist puts it together in a way that doesn’t hurt so bad; maybe a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down.

Check out their site at

Cohousing hits RiNo

I met a guy at a RiNo meeting the other night named Ted Pearlman who is heading up a new ‘cohousing’ project in RiNo. The project, which is scheduled to kickoff this year and finish early in 2009, is called DUCCI, which stands for Denver Urban Core Cohousing Initiative. It’s going to be at the Taxi development on the west side of the Platte River. According to the website:

Cohousing is the name of a type of collaborative housing that attempts to overcome the alienation of modern subdivisions in which no-one knows their neighbors, and there is no sense of community. It is characterized by private dwellings with their own kitchen, living-dining room etc, but also extensive common facilities. The common house may include a large dining room, kitchen, lounges, meeting rooms, recreation facilities, library, workshops, and childrens’s space.

Usually, cohousing communities are designed and managed by the residents, and are intentional neighborhoods: the people are consciously committed to living as a community; the physical design itself encourages that and facilitates social contact. The typical cohousing community has 20 to 30 single family homes along a pedestrian street or clustered around a courtyard. Residents of cohousing communities often have several optional group meals in the common building each week.

They haven’t started working on the design of the buildings in great detail, but they have signed on an architect, David Baker, who is also working on the other Taxi projects. According to the site, they aren’t sure how ‘green’ the building will end up being. I guess that’s up to the residents to decide.

Turns out there is an article on today on this very subject: Multi-Family, Affordable, Urban and Green, written by Sarah Rich.

IDE gets 13 Million from Gates

When I left Sapient (five years ago now) one of the commitments I made to myself is that I would do work for organizations dedicated to changing the world. I’ve been fortunate to work with several non-profit/NGO organizations that are engaged in socially progressive development. One of these is International Development Enterprises (IDE). IDE has done tremendous work in improving the lot of the world’s poorest people. They have brought millions of farmers out of poverty, mostly my improving irrigation techniques.

According to Paul Polak, founder of IDE, there are over a billion people in the world living on less than one dollar a day. In their case, getting out of poverty means moving from one dollar a day to two dollars a day. Their core product is a treadle pump, which allows human-powered irrigation, as well as a series of other, mostly related products.

IDE is an amazing organization, but not one that is particularly well known outside the development realm. For instance, they haven’t put the amount of energy that Heifer International (another group I’ve worked with) has into grass roots fundraising. So, it’s great news that IDE has received 13 million dollars from the Gates Foundation for their efforts. My understanding is that this will double the budget of IDE. Pretty incredible.

What is not clear to me is whether this is an ongoing commitment, or a one-time bequest. My hope is that IDE will take this as an opportunity to improve their awareness in the broader community so that this seed money can serve to establish a strong ongoing base of operations.

Here’s a picture of the treadle pump in action:

Denver (Green) Development

Green Print Denver
Local designer and friend Jenny Thomas has a post on today about greenprint denver, which is mayor hickenlooper’s approach to sustainable development in the city. Jenny seems pretty positive about the project, saying that Denver may be “poised to become a leader in energy efficiency.” Here’s hoping.

Also, the Denver infill blog has information on the latest developments in Highland and over in River North. According to the site, the Denargo market project will have over 2,000 residential units.