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Whose Sustainability Is This, Anyway?

The new framework The Living Principles helps designers decide their own definition of sustainability.

For the first half of this year I was charged with a heady task: Find the best examples of new California product designs which respond to pressing environmental, political, social, and economic issues. I was one of five curators tasked with assembling selections for the California Design Biennial show Action/Reaction, which opened last month at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and let me tell you, it wasn't easy. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done. But not just because I had to pare down a list of hundreds of worthy potential pieces. I also had to think about how the criteria for these choices jived with the definitions of my four co-curators. I quickly realized that no matter how much we thought alike, we'd never defined some of the key words around the exhibition—green, responsible, natural, impactful—in the exact same way.

In the last few years, with the surge of eco-awareness infusing every corner of our lives, from our businesses to our buying decisions to our bathrooms at home, it's hard to go a few hours without hearing the word "sustainability." But what can sustainability really mean when it means something different to everyone?

I think sustainability is like religion. There are believers and evangelists. There are eco-agnostics and eco-atheists. There are "Christmas and Easter" casuals and Orthodox faithfuls. Just like everyone has a definition—or no definition—of their own spirituality, everyone can put themselves somewhere on the spectrum of sustainability, because it's all about very personal decisions. Some people will recycle and change their lightbulbs. Some people will give away their cars and swear off air travel and compost their own feces. Who are we to judge? And how can we? Although I'd have to declare anyone who is composting poop as a sustainability bad ass. (Sigh.)

For designers, the language around sustainability holds a special importance because they're often charged with translating and executing these abstract ideas of "sustainability" into tangible products and services. Example: A client wants to be "eco-friendly," so designers help them switch to packaging with recycled materials and non-toxic printing. But now designers are becoming part of decisions far more complicated than that. What about an efficient system in place to ship that package? What about a repair policy for the product within? Suddenly, designers don't need a green handbook, they need a much more broadly-based, constantly-updated definition of sustainability to use in their work.

That's why The Living Principles, which rolled out its website early last month, is such a welcome online resource. The Living Principles was launched through AIGA, the professional association of mostly graphic-minded designers, to help define issues and encourage conversation around sustainability. The site is meant to be an educational tool and place of inspiration for designers, namely as a news aggregator for partner sites like Greenbiz, Core77, and Change Observer. There are also places for recommended books and films, and a forum, all beautifully designed by Tomorrow Partners.

But here's the thing. The Living Principles doesn't assume a particular stance—or, perhaps you could say ideology—instead, it synthesizes the best work being done in this area for the past 50 years. It isn't one person's values, handed down to the masses, or a manifesto filled with polarizing language—rather it includes all the major programs, published works, and sustainability rating tools that designers are currently working with. These initiatives, ranging from from the World Economic Forum to The Natural Step, are mapped according to their relative similarities on an axis named Context. As a framework—which pulls from heavily from the incredible work of experts like Adam Werbach and Nathan Shedroff—the site provides a solid historic overview of sustainable theories and practices.

But the thing I like best is that The Living Principles does all of this not with a didactic, preachy tone, but with a critical, inquisitive voice. Although it's created as a tool for the eco-savvy design community, it's written for an audience who might not know the difference between an ozone-depleting substance and a hazardous air pollutant (both terms are helpfully defined as part of the site's Words to Know glossary).

Case in point: A press conference a few weeks ago was helmed by none other than Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger where something called the Green Products Innovation Institute was announced. This initiative is backed by a hefty endorsement from green designer William McDonough, of Cradle-to-Cradle fame, and chemist Dr. Michael Braungart, as well as a "founders circle" including members like environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., superstar designer Yves Béhar and, yes, even Brad Pitt. What does the GPII do? Well, in their words:

The GPII will train and certify assessors, called "Licensed Assessment Partners (LAPs)," who will assist companies in complying with the certification requirements and California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) regulatory requirements. The LAPs will submit their assessments to the GPII for auditing and a certificate will be issued if the product meets the pre-requisites. DTSC, which would accredit entities like the GPII, will be able to audit and validate the GPII's procedures at all times.

This is the problem with most information out there about sustainability and design. We know this is probably important. But I write about this stuff and I can barely understand it.

Something like The Living Principles can—and will very soon, I hope—help explain where GPII might fit into the design process, and compare it to other certification programs out there, like the product-based Cradle-to-Cradle or the green building program LEED. And it will share this information, which is usually presented in a perplexingly rigid, academic way, in clear, non-jargony language that welcomes discussion.

At the moment the Living Principles does skew heavily towards graphic design, and the forum has not yet become as active as it should be. And on a site that supposedly gathers dozens of other people's opinions, it's hard to say if the Living Principles itself has an specific point of view. But I feel like I could point someone to this site to give them a fairly complete snapshot of the moment—these are the hot-button topics we're debating and this is where the conversation is going. The conversation part is important, because for the most part sustainability is in flux. What we know about what we make and how it affects the planet is changing every day. We need to freely admit that there is probably not one checklist or manifesto or series of requirements that will ever be universally embraced by the industry. There are solutions out there we're still not sure about—that we should all be questioning. What we need are more resources where current information is clearly presented so we can make up our own minds about the definition of sustainability that's right for us.

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