Compostmodern 2008: All about Sustainable Design

The rains ceased just in time for Compostmodern in San Francisco last Saturday. No, it's not an event about the latest in composting innovations--let's get that straight. It's all about design, and the amazing stories told by leaders who have forged sustainable pathways for industry to follow.

Compostmodern is a one-day, interdisciplinary conference dedicated to sustainable design solutions. AIGA San Francisco, the professional association for design, hosted the biennial event at the California College of the Arts. This year's lineup was stellar.

Joel Makower emceed the event, and had the following to say in his opening speech:

"Sustainability is like teenage sex...everybody says they're doing it, but nobody's doing it well."

Hard questions were asked and insightful conversations emerged. Joel asked VSA Partners principle Jeff Walker (who worked for GE's Eco-imagination ) "How does one walk the fine line around Greenwashing?" We all know GE ain't the greenest now, but they are a fortune five company who grows the size of a Nike each year! Their changes, however small, may resonate with more influence than most ever could. Jeff remarked that the notion of "opacity to transparency" is essential to engaging with the customer and addressing their concerns head on, hopefully gaining their support and involvement in the change process.

Alex Steffen of WorldChanging began the sessions with strong questions and provoking slides asking all Americans to consider what we manufacture in the form of our culture, how we package that to the developing world, and what environmental effects that will have on the planet. "How will we handle a China where everyone has a car?" he asked.

From Nau clothing, Mark Galbraith (v.p. of product design) spoke of the company's incredible story and how they had set out to un*#@! the world. (Full Disclosure: Nau is an advertiser on this site). Mark previously worked at Patagonia and discussed the similarities in philosophy between the two companies. Nau provides 5 percent of sales to various non-profits--the customer gets to choose which his/her money goes to--and upper management can't make more than 12 times that of the least paid employee. Nau aggressively researched numerous materials and strived for sustainable solutions in all areas, including sourcing and distribution, but as pointed out by Galbraith, there were many challenges along this journey and tough decisions had to be made. Intriguingly, Nau encourages its customers to order online as opposed to purchasing from their stores. The interesting fact behind this idea is that most retailers waste incredible amounts of energy having large back stocks that need to be shipped from distant locations and often the clothes travel from store to store before finally being purchased. Having a smaller back stock uses less energy and leaves a smaller footprint overall.

I still can't get the image out of my head of Michael Moore asking Phil Knight if he'd ever been to one of his sweatshops in the documentary "The Big One.". For some time now Nike has been recognized for things other than sustainability. However, they are to be "Considered" for their significant efforts and big strides made since the 1990s. They have a sustainability index where they rate their own production processes against specific benchmarks that can warrant a bronze, silver, or gold rating. A little known fact is that the new Jordan's (XXIII) have a gold rating. Jane Savage (director of Category Integration) spoke honestly and eloquently of Nike's big commitments toward a more sustainable Nike. For example, by 2011:

• All Nike footwear will meet or exceed standards set in their sustainability index.
• All Nike brand facilities and business travel will be climate neutral.
• There will be a 17 percent reduction in footwear waste.
• There will be 30 percent reduction in packaging and point-of-purchase waste.

Ex–Sierra Club president Adam Werbach also presented on his company Act Now Productions and their latest efforts in working with Wal-Mart through their one on one personal sustainability training programs. This is a very controversial move for many in the environmental movement who see Wal-Mart as the enemy, but Adam has boldly demonstrated the green potential of the behemoth, as well as the far reaching influences of the Wal-Mart effect, especially on their suppliers.

Valerie Casey, from IDEO presented one of her many impressive accomplishments called the Designers Accord. It's a coalition of design and innovation firms focused on working together to create a positive environmental and social impact. In just less than a year, Valerie has rallied more than 3,500 designers of all backgrounds and disciplines to agree to the accord and this extends to 20 countries. (Read more about Valerie Casey in BusinessWeek and in Collin's post The Designers Accord: Showcasing Why Design Makes a Difference.

Valerie had this to say about it:

"I want the Designers' Accord to disappear because sustainable design should be the same as design...This is just the beginning."

For more coverage of Compostmodern, check out Core 77.

[Editor's note: Vikash Singh works in advertising sales for TreeHugger and PlanetGreen, and occasionally he reports on events in the San Francisco area. He does not have accounts with any of the companies mentioned in this post.]

Tags: Architecture

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