West Coast Green Coverage

This year I wrote about West Coast Green for Triple Pundit, a site devoted to green business news and ideas. Links to my posts:

“Green” Marketing Lessons from the eBay Box

Backstory about the development of the reusable eBay Box, tips from an intrapreneur involved in the project, and the importance of community engagement.

Madrone League: Open Source Sustainability Education

Hunter Lovins’ vision for affordable sustainability education that would be global, participant-driven, and collaborative.

A Look at Women’s Leadership in Sustainability

Wrap-up of a panel exploring how women lead and how that leadership style can benefit sustainability.

The Social Entrepreneurship Era of Burning Man

The Burning Man community’s values and innovation are generating social ventures that have potential to address global problems.

The Valuation Trap: How ROI Can Undermine the Case for Sustainability

While measuring outcomes helps sell sustainability initiatives, emphasis on quantitative proof can have unintended consequences.

On Being Unreasonable

Friday I gave a brief speech at a Designers Accord town hall event “Design Change, Change Design” hosted at California College of the Arts and organized by Design Strategy MBA students Ahmed Riaz, Elysa Soffer, and Mike Funk.

My talk was geared at designers who want to work towards social good but aren’t sure how, and it was inspired by The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. A fellow speaker also brought the Unreasonable Institute to my attention, which is based on the same idea.

A short version of my speech follows.

My goal in life is to be an unreasonable person.

It’s true most of the time people need to be more reasonable, not less — but reasonable people don’t change the world.  A quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world around him, where the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

To make a change in the world, we have to be unreasonable — we have to believe in things that most people think are pointless, or crazy, or impossible. At an event about “design for social good” it’s safe to assume many of you are already pretty good at this. But for those just getting started, here are 5 ways designers can be unreasonable:

1) Push back

The first step to being unreasonable is challenging the design parameters you are given. Even if they were written by a boss, client, or someone you think is smarter than you are doesn’t mean they’re right. Designers have a pivotal role as the gatekeepers to “stuff” — messages, products, processes — and they can use this to influence what is produced.

Ask basic questions: Is this the right solution, or even the right problem? Does it have to be done with this material or process? If you can, add your voice and improve the outcome. And even if you can’t, sneak in improvements. I had a client who didn’t like the idea of recycled paper even though he couldn’t tell the difference, so I simply didn’t tell him the paper he approved was recycled. Problem solved.

2) Just say No

Once you’re used to pushing back, stop working with clients or projects that are harmful. Tell your boss you won’t work on certain accounts, or turn down projects or clients if you have that power. Yes, it’s scary and risky. That’s why it’s unreasonable.

3) Believe you are the only one who will solve the problem

Reasonable people think others — people, governments, corporations — are working on the world’s problems. You may even be thinking that you aren’t business savvy, smart, or qualified enough to make a difference. But designers are, by definition, trained to solve problems. You’re exactly the right person to identify a need and find a way to meet it. Keep in mind you don’t have to have a big idea yet. Just keep your eyes open and needs will appear in your own backyard.

4) Find profit where others think there is none

Once you found your opportunity, become a social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs are the very definition of unreasonable, bucking common wisdom by finding creative ways to create economic gain alongside social good and refusing to accept they have to choose between doing good and making a good living. Just because no one else has figured out how to solve a particular problem and make money at the same time doesn’t mean you can’t. Figure it out!

5) Sell out

As a social entrepreneur you may have formed an entire community of unreasonable people working outside the system, and all of these ideas start seeming…very reasonable. In this group, perhaps the most unreasonable thing you can do is go back inside the belly of the beast and become a social intrapreneur instead. Going back to point #3, believe you are the person who can change  a mega-corp like Monsanto from the inside. I’ve taken a few potshots at Adam Werbach for working with Walmart and selling his agency to a media conglomerate, but he’s right that a micron of change by Walmart can create a larger measurable result than everything else combined.

For more about social entrepreneurship and what it means to be unreasonable, I highly recommend reading The Power of Unreasonable People.

…Put up a parking lot

I live in downtown San Leandro, California, a city east of San Francisco that is more like a small town than a suburb. It’s one of the most walkable areas I’ve ever lived  — better than my neighborhoods in SF and Chicago, even — and the city is working hard to develop the downtown core as a transit village.

The newest target of redevelopment is former Albertson’s grocery store, Lucky before that, which sat empty for years after more than 55 years in operation. After Albertson’s pulled out, the city failed to lure a Trader Joe’s and then the neighborhood blocked two discount chains who wanted the space. The fight between those who want to gentrify downtown and those who want to bring in retailers that would serve the working-class locals is a familiar tug of war.

Fenced off and neglected, the abandoned store has long been an eyesore, a constant reminder of a struggling city in a tough economy. As I learned when researching a food project, empty grocery stores are a particular challenge to re-let — they have an architecture and square footage that is unique to grocery stores, yet other grocers are wary of taking on a failed space. After many tanked plans and heated discussions, the city has purchased it to use as a temporary parking lot while they rebuild a downtown garage. After that, they will attempt to find retailers to anchor a mixed-use space. I can only hope by then the economy will have strengthened and other city development plans will have taken strong enough root to support it.

The company in charge of the demolition claims to be “environmentally conscious”, recycling 75% of materials generated and properly handling toxins. It’s such a specific claim it makes me wonder if this is unusual, or if most firms do it but don’t talk about it. After all, they are paid for scrap and charged for landfill runs so it would be logical for most demolition companies to encourage recycling at a minimum. On the other hand, I have watched firsthand as a construction crew junked leftover, whole pieces of expensive material. Even if the owners and contractors don’t support waste, this ethic may not trickle down the the workers who simply want to get the site cleared as fast as possible.

Sustainable Brands

In June I was able to attend part of the Sustainable Brands 09 conference in Monterey. Some conference highlights:

Corporate iguanas

My favorite moment of the conference came with the reference by Dev Patnaik to “Corporate Iguanas”. The reptilian brain has no empathy or social awareness, which leads reptiles to “treat each other like furniture” and eat their own. That certainly does sound like a few corporations I know.

People who need people

The social and organizational sides are often left out of the sustainability conversation, presumably because the environmental stuff is easier to measure and understand. However, People is indeed one of the 3 Ps so I was heartened to see Frito-Lay includes Talent as a major part of their sustainability strategy. Creating a sustainable organization relies on the ability to attract and retain the best employees.

Proverb from the Sun Chips guy

If you want 1 year of prosperity, plant corn.
If you want 10 years of prosperity, plant trees.
If you want 100 years of prosperity, educate people.


Jez Frampton of Interbrand says 95% of customers would consider buying green products, but only 22% do — that’s the opportunity space. (I thought this was contradicted by another number that stated somewhere north of 10% actively refuse to buy green, so how can 95% consider it?) He also said only 42% of CEOs say sustainability is on their agenda and only 19% of boards say so. Nice to see the boards are taking their oversight responsibilities seriously. I was disappointed that Frampton’s discussion about expressing the lifetime impact of buying a BMW somehow stopped at ownership, overlooking end of life entirely.

Effecting change

At the end of day 2, I finally saw a system map! (I have an unnatural love of system diagrams and process graphics.) A consultant working with Starbucks brought together all the coffee cup stakeholders, from Dow through the municipal recycling facility, and familiarized them with each other and how they interconnect. An important takeaway was that even though there may be parts of the system that have a larger impact, the party that feels the pain is the one who will make the change. In this case, it’s Starbucks that is doing the work because it benefits from or is punished by the sustainability PR.

Familiar faces

It was nice to be at a conference where I know people! The MBA in Design Strategy program was well represented by our program chair, Nathan Shedroff, who was speaking, plus another instructor and a big handful of our guest lecturers. This conference was a very friendly bunch, much more so than design conferences I have attended, and our program gave me a good opening to talk with strangers.

The speaker from IDEO, Owen Rogers, seemed familiar and I realized we were at a workshop together in Kansas City 7 years ago! That workshop was one of my first encounters with Nathan, too.

Leadership by Design(ers)

We’ve finished our first year on the Design Strategy MBA program! It’s hard to believe. In December I wrote a post for Triple Pundit making the case for how thinking like a designer has a lot in common with being a good leader. It seems like a fitting end to the school year to re-post it here.

The business world has started to recognize something I’ve thought for a long time — designers have exactly what it takes to be great leaders. Here’s why:

We turn vision into reality.

Arguably the most powerful design skill (and the most underestimated, even by designers) is the ability to take abstract concepts and express them tangibly through visuals, messages, and models. We’re innovative at heart, and we bring the new and unusual to life in inspiring ways and show people things they couldn’t have imagined themselves.

We play well with others.

Designers work well independently, yet we also have the emotional intelligence and curiosity it takes to thrive in collaborative groups. We welcome input from those who will show us different perspectives, give us inspiration when we are stuck, criticize us when we can no longer see clearly, and push us to improve our work in ways we cannot achieve alone.

We see the big picture.

The best designers have a broad understanding of history, culture, and people, which gives us the perspective needed to see the long-range vision and give it context. We explore connections between unlikely things and weave those threads together into compelling stories that resonate.

We sweat the details.

I’ve never met a good designer who wasn’t obsessed with details! That level of attention can seem over-the-top, but consistent details are what provide the depth necessary to build up an idea and turn it into a rich, seamless experience.

We take work personally.

Regardless of what people say it’s rarely “just business”, especially when your business is creation. We are passionate about ideas, and the emotional investment we have in our work drives us to improve and learn constantly.

We are committed to sustainability.

Designers are on the front lines of the green revolution, perhaps because we have designed, built, and packaged so many wasteful things. Through communities like the Designers Accord, we are using our unique position to make a positive impact on the world.

Tone Deaf

Recently I was astonished to see this Sherwin Williams logo, which I assumed old signage. Seriously, who in the world would think this logo is a good idea? I was wrong. This very old mark — which, to its credit, looks decades newer than its pre-1900 origins — is in fact still the approved Sherwin Williams logo. How have I never noticed this before?

It’s easy to imagine an ambitious young paint company loving the original idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could paint every building in the world with our revolutionary standardized paints?” But in the current context of environmental awareness, the intent is overshadowed. Even if you overlook the bloodiness of the paint they are still, quite literally, pouring toxic paint over the earth.

Paint that ends up down drains and in landfills is a hazard to environmental health and water supplies, and this image gives the worst possible impression of their attitudes towards corporate responsibility. I can hardly grasp what must be flat-out stubbornness behind the decision to stand by this logo. More companies should honor their brand history, but this is simply an absence of good sense.

In branding, your intentions don’t matter; what matters is what people perceive. Sherwin-Williams has a statement defending the mark and their sustainability initiatives, but refusing to acknowledge public perception is a colossal branding misstep.

Don’t Litter!

Why is it that people have to be told not to litter?

A CCA grad student created a small set of installation pieces, evidently as a statement against cigarette-butt litterbugs. In this scene, a series of little clay men carry inappropriately discarded butts from the base of a tree, across the concrete, up a ladder, finally depositing them in an ash tray on a bench. In another scene, the red figures have erected a fence around a storm drain, drawing attention to the “No Dumping” signs.

Farmers Markets

I’m constantly amazed at how incredible California produce is and I am glad to see small-scale farming and artisan food is making a comeback.

For my Innovation Studio class, my team is researching people, food, and how they come together. As I created a “deconstruction” of the food domain, I realized how much food creates meaning in our lives. There is a deep social and community component to food (see: Slow Food) and the resurgence of buying straight from farmers expands this relationship beyond our families and neighbors to include a connection to the land and to the people who toil to feed us. I’m thrilled to live in a place and time fighting so hard to bring back biodiversity and support sustainable family farms. It will mean higher prices, in a time when we many can least afford them, but the environmental and societal cost of our current corporate farming system is even higher.

Do the Right Thing

I believe in supporting companies that make a commitment to doing good, both as a designer and a customer. Whether or not they always succeed, understanding that business should also be socially and environmentally responsible is a big step towards where we need to be. Although the real trick is you have to mean it.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on a great project for Levi Strauss & Co. While I have always avoided retail fashion, especially the mass-market kind, I’m pleased to be working with a company that embraces values. The photo above is from their lobby, and it is great to see what they stand for plastered up, bigger than life.

I was also very impressed at their attitude towards their customers; we discussed how important it was to talk to and about all of their customers in a respectful and positive way. It’s easy in this business to look down on those who are unfashionable, poor, or overweight, and I appreciate their desire to be inclusive.

As I look to move up in brand management (the purpose of getting the MBA), it would benefit me to work for larger organizations for a few years to gain credibility and learn more about the challenges of a large, multi-national company. However, I still want to work for a company I can believe. Levi’s is just the kind of company that could fit both bills, and now I’m motivated to push aside my assumptions and look more closely for other opportunities I might be overlooking.

Michelle Bachelet

Recently Michelle Bachelet, the first female president of Chile, visited California to sign an alternative energy pact and afterwards she spoke at UC Berkeley.

I was disappointed that we heard very little about the renewable energy agreement at the speech. Evidently that discussion happened up at the Berkeley Labs and not on campus as advertised. However, it was still exciting to hear her vision for Chile — despite my cynicism, I have to admit she said all the right things about equitable growth and social justice. There were a few times in the speech when I wondered if she might be persuaded to run our country, too! Her vision sounded more honest and insightful than anything I’ve heard from an American president in my lifetime. She may not be able to accomplish it all, but at least she is acknowledging some hard truths.

The ever-present crew of Berkeley protesters was outside, and they highlighted a particularly thorny issue: Bachelet is committed to pursuing clean, sustainable energy but she skirted around directly stating that developing energy independence may require unpleasant compromises. One of the more viable options for Chile involves building dams in Patagonia. While hydroelectric power is relatively clean and plentiful, damming destroys ecosystems and swallows up untold acres of land. In this case, the stakes are even higher: it will irreparably change a national environmental treasure.