Thursday, April 2, 2009

Embodied Energy Responsibility

I agree that there are limits to our abilities and limits to reason within the context of sustainable design. Although I have the desire for design that is entirely sustainable, from the moment a mineral is mined from the earth, through its operational life as a product and finally in its degradation or obsolescence, I still feel that realist in me saying ‘yeah, that’s a great idea, but who the hell can pull that off?’ It is entirely unrealistic for a single designer to take on the responsibility of an object. In most cases, the objects we create have been worked on by others in some facet. Ultimately, I am not able to be on location as aluminum ore is being mined, nor am I able to be at the factory where window frames are being extruded, so I must be able to put faith in those before me. True, we are able to make decisions about whom or where we select our materials from, but because they are a separate entity, there is always some level of disconnect that forces a level of trust. For some, it may not be a level of trust so much as a level of not needing to know or care. Is this where the issue is? Do we need to make it a more essential issue, like those nutrition labels that tell what ingredients are in a food product? Do we need a nutrition label of energy, of social impact, of economic impact? Do we make it harder for people not to care or know? If a company is forced to label their product with the working standards from which it was developed, would the people purchasing it begin to change the market demand, and would the manufacturer become more self-conscious of its business practices?

As a hired designer, time becomes valuable. Not many clients will tolerate paying a designer to spend hours upon hours researching every last Btu of energy, hand that worked on, or dollar exchanged in the production of every single material that will be used in the realization of a design. It would not only be unacceptable use of time for the designer themselves, but it would also be unacceptable use of time for the paying client’s wallet.

I have decided to represent this idea through Whole Foods’ Whole Trade Guarantee. This label, though perhaps excessively large, easily informs the customer that the product is of high quality, directs greater funding to those producing it, improves wages and working conditions, supports sustainable environmental practices, and financially supports a social institution. It hits the triple bottom line in one little (or not so little) green stamp. I don’t have to give it another thought because I trust the company which has distributed that stamp.

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